The Problem of Evil

Is God willing to prevent evil, but is not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both willing and able? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither willing nor able? Then why call him God?
      -- Epicurus

It’s not without difficulty that one decides how to start a paper on the problem of evil. “Which atrocity shall I choose?” one ponders wearily. “How best to demonstrate the scope and scale of evil in this world?" The holocaust? The Rwandan genocide? What about the Indian ocean tsunami of 2004, where approximately 228,000 people were snuffed out of existence?1 Or the fact that a child dies every few seconds from starvation or some preventable disease/ailment?2  How about the depressing thought of old-but-very-much-aware people rotting in retirement homes and waiting in vain by the phone for calls from their loved ones? Or say, childhood leukemia and the thought of children (who want nothing but to be normal and live a life like the rest of us) suffering greatly and then ultimately dying in a horrible fashion? And, for that matter, their parents who are forced to stand by and watch their children waste away before their very eyes? Or what about the various and horrific genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs, which kills children typically around five by way of a progressive but inevitable deterioration of the nervous system3; microcephaly, where babies are born with abnormally small brains, causing intellectual difficulties, seizures, and shorter lifespans4; or epidermolysis bullosa, where the skin of children is so fragile as to virtually come right off if they are but touched or hit in the slightest?5

Look at this picture.

Omayrah Sanchez

This is a picture taken by Frank Fournier of a little girl, Omayrah Sanchez, trapped in floodwaters after a 1985 volcanic eruption in Columbia. Fournier recounts the story of how he came to take this picture in a heart-wrenching and-what-is-now-controversial BBC article. To quote the article:

“I reached the town of Ameroyo at dawn about three days after the explosion. There was a lot of confusion - people were in shock and in desperate need of help. Many were trapped by debris. I met a farmer who told me of this young girl who needed help. He took me to her, she was almost on her own at the time, just a few people around and some rescuers helping someone else a bit further away. She was in a large puddle, trapped from the waist down by concrete and other debris from the collapsed houses. She had been there for almost three days. Dawn was just breaking and the poor girl was in pain and very confused. All around, hundreds of people were trapped. Rescuers were having difficulty reaching them. I could hear people screaming for help and then silence - an eerie silence. It was very haunting. There were a few helicopters, some that had been loaned by an oil company, trying to rescue people. Then there was this little girl and people were powerless to help her. The rescuers kept coming back to her, local farmers and some people who had some medical aid. They tried to comfort her. When I took the pictures I felt totally powerless in front of this little girl, who was facing death with courage and dignity. She could sense that her life was going. I felt that the only thing I could do was to report properly on the courage and the suffering and the dignity of the little girl and hope that it would mobilise people to help the ones that had been rescued and had been saved. I felt I had to report what this little girl had to go through. By this stage, Omayra was drifting in and out of consciousness. She even asked me if I could take her to school because she was worried that she would be late.”

Such is the world we live in. Now, as an atheist, and whether I like it or not, that something like this exists in the world is perfectly intelligible, if horrific. This is because the universe doesn’t care about you or me or anything (more precisely, the universe has not the capacity to care). Shit happens, for no other reason than that which brought about the proverbial excrement in the first place. Whether it’s people being people, natural disasters, genetic mutations, etc., all these things happen as the result of natural causes. We are, after all, flesh bags of bones thrown against the jagged surfaces of life and are thus bound to suffer the consequence of this from time to time. Yet, some, indeed most, would have us believe that there also exists an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good being that not only created this state of affairs, but currently maintains it. Moreover, this being, at least to some degree, is said to love and care about human beings and their fate. Now, for some, the problem I’m alluding to is immediately apparent; indeed, it couldn’t be any more obvious. For the rest of you, as an analogy, imagine that you yourself had knowledge of an oncoming disaster or crime as well as the capacity to stop it (say, hypothetically of course, you knew that a tsunami was about to occur and had the power to stop it). Wouldn’t you stop it? And if you didn’t, would you not be culpable in some sense for not having done so? This, essentially, is what the so called ‘problem of evil’ is driving at; that the presence of all the evil in this world of ours doesn’t seem to jive with the thought that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing perfectly good being at the cosmological helm running the show. It would seem, given our world, that either this being doesn’t give a damn about all of the suffering in this world or doesn’t have the power to stop it (and is therefore either malevolent or impotent). Or, perhaps, God doesn’t exist at all.


First things first, let us quickly clarify some terminology. I will use the phrases ‘argument from evil’ and the ‘problem of evil’ interchangeably, though admittedly the argument from evil is just really a facet, if the primary facet, of what might be called the more general ‘problem of evil’ (which encompasses both arguments from evil against the existence of God as well as the experiential component of evil and the effects this may or may not have on one’s belief in God). Please know that I do this act of conflation knowingly and merely for the sake of simplicity.

Also, to be clear, in raising the so called problem of “evil,” I’m in no way implying that evil itself actually exists in the sense that moral realism (the view that there are objective moral facts) is true. This, unfortunately, is a common misunderstanding among contemporary apologists and their ilk; that because the problem of evil seems to be suggesting that evil exists, the none-the-wise atheist (assuming atheism entails moral nihilism), in bringing it up, succeeds only in proving the very thing he’s trying to prove doesn’t exist! God, himself! Silly atheist! Rather, what I’m actually doing in bringing up so called “evil” is simply pointing out that in so far that the theist accepts that both evil and God exist, and if, then, the problem of evil is successful, then the theist has a problem (this is known as an internal critique). In other words, one doesn’t have to affirm that evil really does exist in order to make an argument from evil; you just have to demonstrate that there’s a contradiction in, or unlikelihood of, both evil and God existing at the same time, thereby demonstrating a problem in the theistic worldview (which itself maintains that they both exist at the same time).

What’s more, for all intents and purposes, when I say the word ‘evil,’ what I really mean is “suffering and/or pain” (and even more specifically, gratuitous suffering and pain). To be sure, evil and goodness in my view do not exist in the sense that say, this computer that I’m typing this article on exists (I think that if they exist at all they’re more like necessary or contingent states of affairs, numbers, the laws of logic and other such abstractions) –but suffering exists. And I think that will suffice.

Argument(s) from Evil

Broadly speaking, the problem of evil can be formulated in two ways: either as a deductive argument or as an inductive argument. Perhaps the most well-known example of the former comes from the late Australian philosopher, John L. Mackie. Mackie argued that the following two statements are logically contradictory:

  1. An omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (perfectly good) god exists.
  2. Evil exists.

The problem, as we saw previously, is that if the god described in 1 really existed, then it would seemingly a. know about all of the evil when and perhaps even before it happens b. have the ability to prevent and stop evil from happening, and c. would not want or allow evil to exist. But if this is the case, then only one of Mackie’s statements can be true; either the god described above exists, or evil exists. Therefore, assuming that evil does exist in our world, God, so defined, does not exist.

On the other hand, one of the most influential examples of the inductive argument from evil is the version formulated by the [also] late, William Rowe. This is how he presented it in his highly influential article, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”:

  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. Hence, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly-good being. (note about the counterintuitively deductive formulation here and what he really meant)

Rowe famously illustrated this argument by asking his readers to imagine the plight of a helpless fawn (baby deer) caught in a forest fire, initiated by a strike of lightning.6 We can imagine such a fawn finding itself stranded from its mother (already taken by the fire) and suddenly being surrounded by walls of searing flames. In its terror, the fawn manages to somehow avoid being engulfed completely by the fire, but in running away receives fatal, third-degree burns all over her body. As a result of these wounds, she lies in agony for several impossibly long days until finally dying. Now, with that in your mind, ask yourself the following question: is it reasonable to believe that an omnipotent, omniscient being, bound only by the laws of logic, could not have prevented this fawn’s suffering without preventing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse in our world? In my eyes, the answer is ‘no,’ this belief is not reasonable at all. In this way, rather than focusing on evil itself, Rowe’s argument focuses on a particular type of evil that seems to exist in the world i.e. gratuitous suffering.

However, and I’m speaking to the atheists now, it should be noted that even if these arguments go through, “atheism” (for our purposes, ‘the belief that there is no god’) does not follow necessarily from the success of the problem of evil. Rather, the problem of evil, if successful, only manages to disprove a specific type or conception of the divine—an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent one—doing nothing therefore to disprove an evil creator god, or a committee of competing creator gods, or an omniscient, omnibenevolent, almost-but-not-quite-omnipotent God. In other words, amusingly—and I say that as atheist—perhaps the most well-known arguments for atheism isn’t technically an argument for atheism, but an argument against so called generic theism. This is a crucial point as it alludes to one way of responding to the problem of evil; namely, to modify your conception of God.

Another way to respond is to find, or attempt to find, a way to meet the problem head-on and actually reconcile the existence of God (as traditionally defined) with the existence of evil. This is known as a theodicy. In addition to theodicy is a defense, as in Alvin Plantinga’s ‘free will defense.’7 Though similar to a theodicy, a defense is much humbler in its scope. Where a theodicy attempts to give an account as to how it’s actually the case that both God and evil exist—a justification, if you will, of the belief that God and evil both exist—a defense just seeks to show that their simultaneous existence is in fact possible (read as, ‘doesn’t entail a logical contradiction’) irrespective of whether or not they both in fact exist.8

Now, perhaps not surprisingly, given the long history of the problem of evil argument(s), there are many theodicies that have cropped up over the years. Some of them have their strengths, others not so much. In my personal experience, the most commonly used theodicies are the free will theodicy, general appeals to mystery (in which I include skeptical theism) and the appeal to heavenly recourse. For the purposes of this paper, and for the sake of time and space, I’m going to focus merely on these objections.

Free Will

More often than not, the first response to the problem of evil is what I call the free will excuse. In a nutshell, the free will excuse basically has two facets: 1) the idea that in giving us (human beings) the ability to choose our actions, the ability to do either right or wrong, God necessarily had to allow for the possibility of us doing wrong, and 2) free will, and the good it produces, is worth the evil that it has the potential to cause. Sure, God could have programmed us in advance to always do that which is good, but in doing so he would have made us his mindless automata, like puppets on invisible but inescapable strings. What’s more, if this were the case, or so the argument often goes, there’d be no such thing as right or wrong actions, as the agent doing the actions would ultimately have no control over what he or she is doing. The thought then is that free will is so special, so freakingly and amazingly awesome, that no matter what happens as a result of us having this free will, it’s entirely worth it, full stop.

Let me clarify briefly what I’m not talking about when I say the ‘free will excuse.’ As I mentioned earlier, there is a distinction between a defense and a theodicy; in this paper, I’m only concerned with the free will theodicy. That is, I’m concerned with allegedly true account of why evil does in fact exist in the world in spite of the fact that God exists. The famous free will defense of Alvin Plantinga (that I alluded to earlier), for instance, right or wrong (which is to say that whether or not it effectively refutes the logical/deductive problem of evil), is not within my current scope of analysis.

Let me begin with a charitable act and just leave aside the controversial issue of whether or not we even have free will in the first place. The first problem I have with free will as a response to the problem of evil is embarrassingly obvious: free will has nothing whatsoever to do with all of the so called ‘natural evil’ that occurs in this world. When I speak about natural evil, I’m talking about any evil that doesn’t happen as the result of human beings exercising their free will. For example, tsunamis, earthquakes, childhood leukemia, genetic disorders, lions, tigers, bears, and so on. In a book written by John Perry titled, “Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God,” the terrible plight of baby bats is brought up. You see, in bat caves there can be hundreds of bats that take up residence on the cave ceiling. Over time, layers upon layers of bat feces or guano build up underneath them, proving an ample and never-ending supply of nutrients for the creepy crawlers below (such as cockroaches and other natural beauties). In fact, this phenomenon is known by cave-explorers to give the floor of such caves the appearance of being alive, as the ground itself seems to be moving about. Sometimes, inevitably, baby bats manage to fall from their perch on the ceiling. Sometimes, inevitably, in doing this they break one of their wings from the fall. When this happens, the baby bat suddenly finds itself in an abominable situation indeed. As it struggles to breathe in the asphyxiating fumes of layers of excrement, it is slowly eaten alive by all of those creepy crawlers scurrying about in the muck…now just try to absorb the horror of this for a moment. Clearly, then (unless we posit demons; *facepalms*), free will has nothing whatsoever to do with the baby bat’s suffering.

My second concern with the free will excuse arises from the fact that in order to even entertain it, you have to first take what is known in philosophy as an incompatibilist view of free will. This, roughly, is the idea that agents like you or I cannot be considered free if we and our actions, like all (or most) other physical processes, are ultimately determined by prior causes beyond our control. But if you’re a compatibilist, however, and plenty of respectable philosophers and theologians are, then there is in fact no reason why God couldn’t determine us to do good and nevertheless endow us with the freedom to choose our actions.

Another significant problem for the free will excuse has to do with what has been called free will cancelling.9 Recall that the gist of the free will excuse is that those evils that are brought into the world by human agency, so called moral evils, are necessary due to the fact that God is either unable or unwilling to override the free will of human beings and that sometimes humans choose wrong. So the thought seems to be here that the importance of our uninhibited ability to carry out our will far outweighs the importance of human wellbeing and happiness, at least, in God’s eyes. Fair enough, but there appears to be problem whenever this freedom of the will is actually realized in the world; namely, that one person’s free will can in fact override and completely subjugate the free will of another. Where, for example, is the free will in being kidnapped, tortured, and raped? Consider the horrific case that emerged back in 2008 about an Austrian man named Josef Fritzl. One day, his preparations all in place and apparently unbeknownst to his wife, Fritzl lured their teenage daughter into the basement, rendered her unconscious with an ether-soaked rag, and then locked her away in a specially built chamber. Fritzl held his daughter, Elizabeth, there in the basement for some twenty-four years as his sex slave. He returned to her chamber approximately every three days to give her food and to rape her, often keeping her on a leash while doing so. During this time Elizabeth gave birth to seven children, and these children were either kept in the basement to languish with her (one died several days after birth from receiving no medical care), or actually brought into the Fritzl household upstairs. In the latter case, Fritzl managed this by way of concocting elaborate stories about finding the children at their door with vague and distant letters or phone messages from a lofty Elizabeth, who of course had been forced by her father/captor to write them only some thirty or forty feet below their living room.

Now, the point in bringing up this story is not simply to shove your face in some of the worst that humanity has to offer, but rather to illustrate the way in which one person’s free will can in effect, cancel, override, or render as inchoate the free will of another person. At face value this is a rather obvious truth, but remember that the crucial premise of the free will defense is that God is either incapable of, or unwilling to, override the free will of human beings (even to stop gratuitous suffering). If it turns out however that the realization of free agents in the world entails that some agents will lose their freedom anyway (on the part of people like Josef Fritzl), and bring about evil, then wouldn’t it be much, much better, by any reasonable meaning of the word, if this freedom-overriding was done by an omniscient, omnibenevolent being, rather than by those human beings who manage to acquire the resources needed to carry out their nefarious will? In other words, how on earth can we respond to the plight of people like Elizabeth by saying that God allowed this to happen to them because he values free will? What in Christ’s name have we to say about Elizabeth’s free will?

Think also of the way it is not only appropriate but absolutely obligatory that we ourselves DO override the free will of others in certain contexts. After all, we don’t look at a mass shooter and think to ourselves, “As much as we’d like to stop what this person is doing right now we cannot and will not violate the sanctity of his free will by interfering,” we think, “To hell with his free will, we need to do everything in our power to stop this maniac!”. It’s not clear, at least not to me, why the situation is so radically different in the context of God as to somehow absolve Him all together from ever having to step in.

Yet another problem with the free will theodicy concerns what I want to call divine influence which, essentially, is just the idea that even if we have free will, and even if we take an incompatibilist view of things, it still doesn’t follow from this that God wouldn’t have more indirect ways to guide our actions in a particular direction. It seems that God could influence us to do certain things as opposed to other things, with us all the while being none the wiser. To illustrate this, think of the way advertising works for a moment; advertisements are designed to appeal to certain cognitive and psychological idiosyncrasies and biases within us so as to increase the likelihood of us choosing one product over other (competitor) products. To deny the effects that advertising and other psychological manipulation like this has, is, well, to deny reality. That is, regardless of where you stand on the free will, determinism, and compatibilism debate, the power of influence on human behavior is undeniable; studies10 have repeatedly shown that we can be primed to do or choose certain things as opposed to other things, and further, that the vast majority of the time we as conscious agents had no idea why we made such decisions.11 Again, given this real-world possibility, couldn’t an all-powerful being seek to influence us away from things like rape, the Holocaust, and so on in a similar manner? It’s certainly not obvious that he couldn’t.

In anticipation of the soon-to-come response, to object by saying that ‘there’s just something reprehensible with influencing agents like us to do the right thing as opposed to the wrong thing,’ is to completely ignore the fact that we do just this whenever we endeavor to raise children up into the world. Think about it; we don’t just teach them our dearly-held values and beliefs, we hope and strive so that our actions and our words will help mold them into the person they will eventually become, whether or not they’re cognizant of this influence. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s just part of what it means to be a parent. So why does this notion suddenly become so morally questionable in the context of a god and his wayward creatures?

Donate to Atheist Republic

Consider also the implications that the free will excuse seems to have for the Christian conception of heaven (or vice versa). Ask yourself the following question: Is it possible for God to create a state of affairs in which beings have free will and yet never choose to do that which is wrong? On the one hand, it seems that in order for free will to have any relevance to the debate on evil and God the answer would have to be ‘no,’ otherwise free will ceases to explain why moral evil exists. But on the other hand, what then of heaven? Do Christians not imagine themselves as being free when they reach their final, eternal destination? Do Christians not simultaneously believe that heaven will be a place without evil and suffering? Well if it turns out that it’s possible for us to be free without evil—namely, in heaven—then why again did the holocaust have to happen? Why again did Elizabeth and her children have to suffer for all those unimaginable years?

Oh and while we’re at it, what about God himself? Many would argue that God, being perfectly good, cannot choose to do that which is evil. But wouldn’t they also contend that this being was/is free in some significant sense of the word all the same? So, again, in so far that this demonstrates that it is in fact possible to be free and yet never choose to do wrong (as this is the way that God is constituted), then what in the hell does free will have to do with anything?

Finally, before moving on to what I call the appeal to heavenly recourse, let us just suppose for the moment that by giving us free will, God had no choice but to allow for possible evils; it seems perfectly reasonable to me to ask the following question: is free will really worth all the trouble? We must remember that, in terms of possible created worlds, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility for a creator-god to have created a world such that we have the illusion of free will (not knowing the difference), thereby guaranteeing that no maniacal fathers would ever have the chance to kidnap, torture and rape their daughters (+ preventing all other instances of moral evil). Think again of Elizabeth; now try to comprehend that the acts carried out on her by her own father are just infinitesimal drops of pain in the inconceivably vast ocean of suffering that we humans force upon one another. Does the moral good of unadulterated choice really outweigh all of the moral bads it seems to entail?

Because Heaven

Another common response to the problem of evil is the notion that an eternity in heaven will ultimately make up for the suffering experienced here in this finite life. Think of a child afflicted with leukemia; though the child may suffer greatly for the last few years or months of his or her life, when they awake from their death they will find themselves in heavenly bliss and will remain that way for all eternity…or so the argument goes. This heavenly bliss, and especially the eternal duration of it, can therefore be regarded as a sort of alleged reparation for the suffering that we in fact go through here in this life.

Let me first concede that of course, there is at least some solace and comfort to be derived from the belief in an afterlife, if, that is, one happens to find themselves capable of entertaining such a belief. This is especially the case for someone going through suffering, or say, the parent of a recently passed child; the idea of heaven is undoubtedly an incredible tool, indeed, perhaps for some the only tool, for alleviating our pain and sorrow in these kinds of situations. I’m often inclined to think that this is likely part of the reason why beliefs in the afterlife might have developed and then became so dominant in our species in the first place.

However, this is not to say that appealing to heaven is a good response to the problem of evil. For starters, it would seem to beg the question at hand. After all, the whole question in the first place is whether or not the traditional, monotheistic god, and thus the corresponding belief in a Christian afterlife, exists. Hence, can the theist really respond to the argument from evil by saying, “Well, in heaven…” if whether or not heaven exists is part and parcel to the very thing that we’re supposed to be debating? That said, and though I think we have good reason to start with the assumption here that there is no heaven, rather than there is a heaven (because the former implies only the natural world, but the latter implies both the natural world and something else i.e. the supernatural), I’m weary of begging the question in the other direction by simply denying that such a heaven exists and will instead just leave this objection to the side.

Moving on, what about the people and/or animals that don’t make it to heaven? Assuming that Christian universalism isn’t true and that everyone does not in fact make it to heaven, what about all of the non-Christians who will awake from their earthly suffering only to find themselves facing an eternity of far worse suffering in the bowels of hell? What for instance of the six million or so Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust, only to then awake and then remain in a state of perpetual misery in hell for all eternity? And assuming that all dogs do not go to heaven, what of the countless animals that have, do currently, and will go on to suffer in the most horrific of ways in this world of ours? How many animals are there suffering this very moment—even as we sit here in our comfortable homes and chairs or couches—perhaps in the cold freezing to death, confined to perpetual solitude in a cage somewhere, or running for their lives only to eventually be caught and then eaten alive? If all of these animals (by the sheer fact that they are the wrong species), do not in fact go to heaven too, then heaven is not an adequate response to their suffering either.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this whole notion of heaven-makes-right as a response to the problem of evil seems in my eyes to confuse compensation for reparation. You might say that to give compensation is to give back, return, or restore something that had been taken from someone, but to give reparation for something is to make up for, or justify in some sense, what has been done. Strictly speaking, if I were to steal something from you and then give it back sometime later, my returning it to you wouldn’t necessarily make up for what I’ve done to you or your well being. Suppose, for instance, that I stole your car, took it for a joy ride for a couple hours, and then returned it later that day with gas money as well as some extra money for any other maintenance issues that may, though likely didn’t, have occurred while driving it. You might say that I offered up compensation, and then some, for what I did to you, but you wouldn’t necessarily say that I gave reparations or in any way justified my previous actions against you; this is the difference I’m referring to.

Here’s a more poignant example; suppose that a man kidnaps your child. Suppose further that after meeting and getting to know your child, the kidnapper experiences a change of heart and decides to return your child back to you unharmed, without demanding any ransom. Suppose even further that as a result of the man feeling bad about his sin, he decides to actually pay you what little money he has as compensation; now, again, would any of this truly justify what he did to you and your child? Would any of it really make up for what he initially did to you? Indeed, would or could anything ever make such a thing right after the fact? The idea that there is a being out there beyond space and time who, to quote Sam Harris, “visits suffering on innocent people of a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath,”12 only to then offer up heaven as a supposed amends is, in my eyes, no better that the man that kidnaps your child and then eventually gives him or her back to you with a check.

Let’s return to Rowe’s evidential argument from evil to cap things off.

Consider again Rowe’s argument:

  1. There exists 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. Hence, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly-good being.

The brilliance of Rowe’s argument in comparison to Mackie’s earlier deductive argument is twofold: first, the standard theodicies that are given in order to explain why God would allow such things in the world (such as free will, the ability to build character and strength through suffering, eternal or heavenly compensation, et cetera) do not work. The freedom to choose our actions, the possibility of building character (i.e. soul-building theodicies), and the prospect of heaven simply have no bearing on the intense suffering of Rowe’s imagined fawn (unless of course, as we just saw, deer happen to go to heaven too). And secondly, though this example itself is admittedly just a thought experiment—the deer merely being imagined by us—it is undeniably the case that real, living, breathing animals experience suffering like this every single second of every day. Again, think of the baby bat. Think of all the animals being eaten alive or dying of starvation and/or exposure at this moment. Now consider how this sort of thing, as well as countless other instances of grotesque suffering, has been going on for hundreds of millions of years before human beings ever even arrived on the scene. Any one of these will do.

In case you’re wondering what makes Rowe’s argument evidential as opposed to deductive (as it is actually worded above in a deductive manner), it’s the way he presents his argument in the context of “reasonable belief,” as opposed to say speaking in terms of absolute certainty. In other words, Rowe fully acknowledged that we couldn’t know for certain that there is no ultimate reason for the fawn’s suffering. Because, well, maybe there is and we just don’t know about it. Nevertheless, it certainly seems like there is an enormous amount of gratuitous suffering in this world. Moreover, it would only take one actually gratuitous instance of suffering, amidst the uncountable of instances of suffering in this world, to make the case for Rowe. So, then, what’s more reasonable? Believing that there is/has been at least one instance of gratuitous suffering in the world or believing that every single instance of seemingly gratuitous suffering (no matter how seemingly absurd, random, or meaningless they are) happens/happened for a justifiable reason?

Arguably, the best way to respond to Rowe’s evidential argument from evil is to simply question our intuition that this or that seems gratuitous in the first place. This view, broadly speaking, is known as skeptical theism. More or less, the skeptical theist is that theist who rejects the evidential argument from evil on the basis that we have no right to infer from our inability to see reasons for instances of seemingly gratuitous suffering, that there are in fact no reasons for these things. The sort of inference at the heart of Rowe’s argument that is being questioned here is known as the ‘Noseeum’—as in, ‘no-see-them’—inference.13 To be sure, the skeptical theist doesn’t reject all no-see-them-inferences, just the salience of such an inference in the context of seemingly gratuitous suffering.

Not surprisingly though, there are problems ‘skeptical theism.’ One such problem is that, unless applied elsewhere, this brand of hardline, radical skepticism seems preposterously ad hoc. Furthermore, when we do apply it elsewhere, we start running into further issues.  For if we are really to be this skeptical about something as seemingly obvious as the apparently gratuitous nature of an imagined fawn’s suffering, or a baby bat suffocating in excrement, then shouldn’t theists be skeptical about the seemingly obvious existence of God in the first place? Just as skeptical theists say in regard to seemingly gratuitous instances of suffering, how can we really know for certain that there aren’t other possible, if unknowable, explanations/reasons beyond God, for any number of the mysterious phenomena (design, supposed fine-tuning, etc.) commonly pointed to as evidence for his existence?

Skeptical theism also seems to bring about at least potentially the fear of moral paralysis. Think about it; if we can never really know whether or not a particular harm is gratuitous, then in a certain sense we can never really know if we should seek to prevent it. Normally, many of us only allow for those instances of suffering in the world that are necessary but we do not allow for those that are not necessary. If you see someone hurting a child, for instance, your response very much hinges on the context of this harm. If the person hurting the child is a doctor with a needle, then you do nothing. Maybe you even pay him some money. But if the person hurting the child is a homeless man with a needle, then you do something. Yet, under the paradigm of skeptical theism, whenever we look at people and things in our world with abject horror and think to ourselves that these things shouldn’t be happening, we may actually be doing so unjustifiably. For all we know these things not only should happen, but have to happen in order to bring about some mysterious, worthwhile end in the grand scheme of things. For all we know, in other words, according to skeptical theism the holocaust may have been a completely worthwhile means to an end. How ironic it is then that skeptical theism, a theistic response to the evidential argument from evil, seems to, in some sense, actually entail a sort of necessary skepticism in regard to one’s own supposed moral intuitions. Because how do we really know that x is evil? We don’t, so says the skeptical theist, it just seems that way to us.

Here's another potential concern for the skeptical theist; if we can’t know for certain that God doesn’t have a reason to allow any particular instance of seemingly gratuitous evil, nor can we know for certain that God doesn’t have a reason to not allow any particular instance of gratuitous suffering. The problem here is that the god in question (the one the arguments from evil are getting at), if he existed, may have reasons beyond our kin (and thus beyond the reasons we ourselves might suggest), full stop. But for all we know, there may be just as many reasons beyond our kin to disallow any particular instance of seemingly gratuitous suffering as there are to allow any particular instance of seemingly gratuitous suffering. If that were the case, then these reasons about which we do not know would seem to cancel each other out, thereby nullifying skeptical theism in that way.

Unsurprisingly, the degree to which skeptical theism successfully rebuts the evidential argument from evil is still rather controversial. Atheistic philosophers do not tend to find it all that persuasive, while many theistic philosophers do (with the occasional exception in either direction). Some notable articles defending skeptical theism can be found here and here. David Kyle Johnson makes a novel argument against skeptical theism here and Nick Trakkakis gives a gratuitously exhaustive book-long treatment of these issues (ultimately concluding that the argument from evil should in fact warrant non-belief among believers) in his “The God Beyond Belief: In Defence of William Rowe’s Evidential Argument from Evil.” I also highly recommend Skeptical Theism: New Essays, by Trent Dougherty, a collection of essays on the current argument from evil vs skeptical theism-debate.

Personally, and again, not surprisingly, I find myself in the former camp, such that even when taking into consideration our possible and indeed, likely epistemic limitations, the argument from evil still seems to establish the overall improbability of there-existing the traditional god of monotheism. It just is undeniably the case that there are instances of suffering in the world that 1) do not occur as a result of free will, 2) occur outside of the awareness of any human being, thereby preventing any sort of soul-building process, and 3) by all reasonable evaluation, need not have happened. Anything else, in my eyes, is just wishful thinking.
Recently, Benjamin Blake Speed Watkins (one of the co-hosts of the “Real Atheology”-podcast) summarized the evidential argument from evil in the following manner:

“The way I see it, one of two propositions MUST be true:

1. At least one instance of seemingly gratuitous evil in the course of sentient history is, in fact, gratuitous.


2. There are no instances of gratuitous evils in the course of sentient history.  All instances of seemingly gratuitous evils are illusory.

Which proposition do the facts about evil give us most reason to believe is true?  When reflecting on that question one must take into account the scope, scale, and intensity of all the evils we know to have obtained and will inevitably obtain.  If we take an impartial point of view, then I think the weight of evidence clearly falls in favor of the first proposition.”

In closing, let me briefly summarize what I’ve said here and then offer up a few caveats.  First, I introduced the general problem of evil and then provided two well-known formulations of it (Mackie’s logical POE and Rowe’s evidential POE). I then considered three common theological responses to the problem of evil and attempted to provide several objections to them in turn. However, (time for the caveats!) to be clear, as anyone well-versed in this material would note, we’ve only but scratched the surface in this measly twelve-page article of mine! This piece isn’t and was never intended to be an exhaustive look at the problem of evil or even, for that matter, at the specific objections to the problem of evil that we examined. Nor was it meant to be a novel approach to looking at or running the problem of evil, or responding to these particular objections. Rather, it was an attempt to offer up this guy’s current thoughts on some of the things pertaining to the problem of evil. And with that, I bid you adieu.


Picture of Omayrh Sanchez and corresponding quote comes from the following BBC article:
Adams, Marilyn McCord; Adams, Robert Merrihew: “The Problem of Evil,” Oxford University Press, 1990. Print.
French, Peter A.; Wettstein, Howard K.: “The Concept of Evil.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy Volume XXXVI. Blackwell Publishing, 2012. Print.
Graham, Gordon: “Evil and Christian Ethics.” Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.
Wielenberg, Eric: “Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe.” Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.


  6. Rowe, William L.: “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.”
  7. Plantinga, Alvin: “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom.”
  9. Licon, Jimmy Alfonso “Moral Manipulation & the Problem of Evil” -Philosophy Now (Issue #99)
  12. From his debate with William Lane Craig (

If you like our posts, subscribe to the Atheist Republic newsletter to get exclusive content delivered weekly to your inbox.

Click Here to Subscribe

Donating = Loving

Heart Icon

Bringing you atheist articles and building active godless communities takes hundreds of hours and resources each month. If you find any joy or stimulation at Atheist Republic, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

Or make a one-time donation in any amount.