Re-evaluating the Problem of Evil

English: a Starving woman and child during the...
English: a Starving woman and child during the Assyrian Genocide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a rough summary of my take on different formulations of the problem of evil.

1. If a God who is all powerful, all good and all-knowing exists, evil would not exist. Evil exists. Therefore this God does not exist.


There are circumstances in which such a God would exist and evil would exist – where created beings have free will and where evil would produce a greater good, for instance. So, the first premise is untrue

2. The existence of evil in the world is evidence against the existence of God. It makes God’s existence improbable.


This assumes that there is some tension between the idea of God’s existence and the fact that evil exists when, like I previously argued, the two are compatible.

Even granting that this is true, it is outweighed by the evidence for God’s existence (e.g. the moral, teleological, ontological and cosmological arguments).

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


It is impossible to show that gratuitous evil exists because we do not have enough knowledge to tell what the future consequences of an event are. So, the second premise cannot be defended.

The first premise is the same as saying if God exists, gratuitous evil does not exist. From the moral argument etc. God exists. Therefore gratuitous evil does not exist.

A lot more can be said of course, but you get the point. I have my responses to the versions of the argument I know pretty laid out – all except one version. “If God exists, he would not let children starve in Africa”

If you think that sounds very much like the versions I previously laid out, you’re going too fast. See, I, like a lot of people, split the problem of evil into “the logical problem of evil” and “the emotional problem of evil”. I’ve been pretty willing to engage with the logical version, but I considered the emotional problem without merit. This does not mean that I did not care about those who suffer. It means that while I considered the suffering caused by evil painful, I did not think our feelings about the issue constitute evidence against God. That hasn’t changed very much, but but it has changed.

Back to the question. I’ll take it step by step.

Three people in chains, probably somewhere in ...
Three people in chains, probably somewhere in East-Africa. The total number of slaves in early twentieth-century Ethiopia is estimated at between 2 and 4 million in a total population of about 11 million. “#v=onepage&q=&f=false Women and Slavery: Africa, the Indian Ocean world, and the medieval north Atlantic”. Gwyn Campbell, Suzanne Miers, Joseph Calder Miller (2007). Ohio University Press. p.219. ISBN 082141724X (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Step 1: See, hear about or experience an instance of terrible evil, preferable something traumatic.

Step 2: Experience the feelings it produces. The feelings of shock and sadness and that “this should not be”.

Step 3: Put this into words: “If God existed, this should/would not happen”

The problem occurs during the transition from step 2 to step 3. What is said in step 3 is (presumably) what you have been feeling but the instance it is put into words, it makes a lot less sense. It becomes the views I already argued against when I summarized logical versions of the argument. I apologize if you cannot see the point I am making. This is something you experience – feeling that a certain event constitutes evidence for against God’s existence, but the finding that it is no evidence at all the instant you attempt to articulate it.

When a person says “If God exists, he would not let children starve”, you may assume that they are formulating an argument. But they are doing more than that. They are inviting you to picture something and their point depends a lot on the emotional feelings that picture produces. Since the point is so like the deductive problem of evil, one is tempted to reply that God could have morally sufficient reason for allowing such a thing and that is a pretty good answer for someone who is thinking about the issue, as opposed to feeling. For those who have not been able to ignore their feelings about the issue, the answer is insufficient because their feelings keep repeating the point. Not in words like we speak, but in a very compelling manner.

I know the answer to this. That we feel something is true does not make it true. Our feelings change with the weather. They say one thing today and the other tomorrow. And this is where I disagree. Maybe what’s his face (aka Pascal) had a point about our heart having reasons that reason does not know. Maybe our feelings can be reliable judges about truth. They do not give contradictory answers in this situation. There is not one instance in which in the midst of a tragedy, my feelings have given me a different response than “this should not be”. It is my reason that tells me that God could (and sometime does) have sufficient reasons for allowing evil.

But I also cannot say that my feelings are right in saying that given God’s existence, evil should not be present. What I think is that their statements sound so logically incorrect when put into words because they are put into the wrong words. Perhaps what my feelings say in the midst of tragedy is not what I think they are saying. Perhaps that feeling should not be translated into “if God exists, this evil would not” (although it sounds like such a good representation of what I feel). Perhaps if I could translate them more accurately, they would make better sense. Then I could find a satisfying answer to their argument. That’s an awful lot of ‘perhaps’, I know.

Of course, I could just take another tactic and conclude that my evaluations of logical arguments from evil are wrong and that they are good arguments after all. But I fear falling into one serious problem. That is: accepting a bad argument based on feelings whose judgment I am not sure are even nearly trustworthy. I suspect lots of people who use the moral have done this – first conclude based on your feelings that the evil in the world is evidence against God’s existence; then try to find arguments to support that view. This is not a wrong way to proceed if our feelings are reliable judges. But I have been told that they are not.

In case you were wondering, this post was brought on by an emotional crisis. And its claims will probably sound less reasonable as the crisis eases so I’m glad I put it down now. The sum of it all is that why I firmly believe and believe that I can defend the view that logical formulations of the argument from evil do not do as they claim, I am unsure about the emotional ones.


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I’m Tracy

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