Skip to main content

The Evil God Challenge

My Paper "The Evil God Challenge" is now available online at the CUP journals page

This is the final, published version, appearing in Religious Studies shortly.


Mark Jones said…
That really is excellent; thanks for posting.

The power of this, I think, is not that there are *no* asymmetries, since clearly there are, but that these do not move the good god hypothesis towards reasonable *enough*, away from the generally accepted unreasonableness of the evil god hypothesis.

(One or two typos though, I think; theodices instead of theodicies a couple of times)
wombat said…
"theodices" - what you use when determining the outcome of Pascal's wager perhaps?
Paul P. Mealing said…
I feel this all comes back to consciousness or sentient beings. Without consciousness there would be no good and evil, and no God either. God is a projection who can represent good or evil, depending on the beholder. Evil is invariably a perversion, because the person who commits evil (like genocide, for example) can always justify it as being for the ‘greater good’.

People who attribute natural disasters to God or Divine forces are especially prone to a perverted view of God. They perversely attribute natural disasters to human activity because God is ‘not happy’. We live in a lottery universe, and whilst we owe our very existence to super novae, another super nova could just as easily wipe us all out in a blink, depending on its proximity.

God, at his or her best, represents the sense of connection we have to all of humanity, and, by extension, nature. Whether that sense be judgmental and exclusive, or compassionate and inclusive, depends on the individual, and the God one believes in simply reflects that. Even atheists sense this connection, though they don’t personify it or conceptualise it like theists do. At the end of the day, what matters is how one perceives and treats their fellows, not whether they are theists or atheists; the latter being a consequence of the former (for theists), not the other way round.

By the way, there are people who do believe very strongly in an ‘evil-god’, called Satan, and that ‘he’ is responsible for ‘anti-miracles’, if anti-miracles be acts of evil and suffering.

Your best argument is all the suffering that occurred before we (as moral agents) came on board. Also, people tend to forget that the Old Testament God is not a nice bloke by any stretch. The story of Job demonstrates that (amongst many others) which, people seem to forget or ignore, arose from a ‘dare’ by Satan. What sort of role-model tortures someone as the result of a dare?

The standard Christian explanation of evil is ‘original sin’, so it’s completely relevant to your argument. As you point out, it’s an entirely mythical story, and so it’s allegorical, not meant to be taken literally. The idea that evil arose from eating from the ‘tree of knowledge’ is effectively an argument for the moral supremacy of ignorance over knowledge.

Evil is an intrinsic attribute of human nature, but its origins are evolutionary, not mythical or Divine. God is a projection of the ideal self, and therefore encompasses all that is good and bad in all of us.
wombat said…
Paul - "The idea that evil arose from eating from the ‘tree of knowledge’ is effectively an argument for the moral supremacy of ignorance over knowledge."

Or is it, as you say earlier, a partial realization that "Without consciousness there would be no good and evil, .." coupled up to the idea that good is simply the absence of evil?
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Wombat,

Please don't get the idea that I agree with that argument (about the tree of knowledge inferring that ignorance is morally superior to knowledge). It's just one possible interpretation of the biblical story. I actually think that 'original sin' or the 'fall of man' is one of the most iniquitous ideas ever invented. It propogates the idea that humans are born evil.

I stick to my opening argument about consciousness being a pre-requisite for good and evil. As to whether good is simply the absence of evil, I'm not so sure. It's like saying darkness is the absence of light - but good and evil are concepts not so easily defined. Many people who commit evil believe they are committing good. Jihadists, for example, who are condemned by Westerners for committing evil, are treated as heroes by many of their countrymen and political supporters.

Regards, Paul.
Just a couple thought abouts about the "Miracles and religious experience" theodicies.

I think schizophrenic and psycopathic experiences, much like the Son of Sam experiences (being talked to by dogs, ordering him to murder people), could be construed as actions of an evil god. It's just not religious people who hear voices, huh. :)

Also, as far as miracles go, the religious folk always bring up the people "miraculously" being cured by cancer, but they never seem to be so garrulous about cases where people who are completely healthy, suddenly, and against all odds, contract a vicious disease and die within days, sometimes even hours. This would certainly be more indicative of an evil God.

Just a couple thoughts.
Also, it's harder for an evil god to prevent good, than it is for a good god to prevent evil. For example, in good God's universe, if John is going to shoot Jim, it's quite simple for God to prevent John from shooting Jim. There are a myriad of possibilities, quite many of which don't even require good God to reveal his existence. Stopping evil for an omnipotent God; not terribly hard.

Now, in evil God's universe, let's put John and Jim in a room together, but this time, John doesn't want to kill Jim, and likewise, Jim doesn't want to kill John. Pretty good stuff if you ask me. Evil God doesn't like this, and he wants to stop it. But, how do you stop people from being good? It takes some work, doesn't it? Does evil God magically place a gun in John's hand? What does he do to make this happen?

To stop evil, generally requires stopping evil activity. To stop good, you'd have to actually instigate evil activity, which is much harder.

It just seems like the problem of good is not as large a problem for an evil god, whereas the problem of evil really shouldn't be much of a problem for a good god.
Just saved that article to my wife's Kindle and will save it for my trip to Jamaica. Thanks for posting that link Stephen.
wombat said…
Paul -

Didnt mean to give the impression that I had got that impression...

I was just sort of musing that maybe the thought processes behind the Adam and Eve tale was the idea that to recognize good and evil, consciousness (knowledge) is required and that it was a slightly later bit of reasoning that sanctified ignorance. Read in isolation wasn't Adam and Eve's punishment for disobedience rather than being smart?

Oddly enough there was a BBC programme recently where a historian pointed out that the doctrine of Original Sin being inherited was due to Augustine and Genesis 1 and 2 don't mention it.
Stephen Law said…
Augustine is indeed responsible for the doctrine of original sin. In fact I have a paper by philosopher John Hyman I am publishing in THINK 25 that argues that the story of the "Fall" was never intended as a cautionary tale about disobeying God, but as a Prometheus-like tale in which the snake actually liberates humanity by providing us with knowledge, thereby pissing off the god(s). It was Augustine who turned it into a celebration of ignorance and deference to divine authority.

Hyman notes in passing that of course Adam and Eve could not have morally sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, as before eating the fruit they did not know good and evil.
pascal said…
Well, Zoroaster came up with an alternative answer to the problem...
wombat said…
What struck me was that "the knowledge of good and evil" is of a rather specific kind. Prior to the fruit eating episode they had knowledge of other kinds - names of all the animals etc. enough know how to use tools and do a spot of gardening. (They also had free will which seems to shoot down another common component of theodicies.)
The good and evil referred to would seem to be specific to man-made good and evil. If this were not so then God's threat of "lest ye die" from eating the fruit would seem a bit futile. Why fear death? Why fear at all? Why bother anaesthetising Adam to take a rib out if he couldn't suffer?

The "knowledge" we gained is shown as a particularly useless variety - embarassment - rather than fire. Theres a touch of self deprecating irony there too since Eve could have had a shot at the other tree which would given us mastery of life. I can imagine this being told around a campfire with the sort of humour that explains why the Saudis got the oil and the Irish got the potato.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Sorry, I didn't follow this up earlier.

Thanks for the clarification, Wombat.

Stephen, I find what you say about Augustine and 'original sin' very interesting - I wasn't aware that it was effectively 'his idea'.

And I concede that I wasn't aware that there could be another interpretation: the snake liberating humanity; but I like it much better.

Regards, Paul.
Stephen Law said…
Hmm. well I got that wrong. Augustine probably not responsible for devising the notion of original sin.(wiki suggests Ireneus played a key role). Sorry Paul.
wombat said…
Well according to Bettany Hughes , Augustine championed the idea even if it wasn't his own.

C4 programme The Daughters of Eve
David B. said…
Is there really no symmetrical argument for miracles and granted prayers? I would have thought that the granting of curses would qualify in that the malevolent god acts to supernaturally bring about the wicked desires of someone. This would be the kind of moral evil desired by such a being according to your earlier arguments. It may even elect to reward selfish prayers for money, fame or power if this leads to greater moral degeneracy.

There may be an asymmetry though in that a benevolent god would surely not be expected to grant evil prayers whereas an evil good might grant good ones. This could not only incite jealousy in others when only a few prayers are answered, but also cause those with unanswered prayers considerable anguish, particularly if they might felt that they were denied their blessing because they were in some way unworthy.
Anonymous said…
The argument assumes that good and evil are symmetric. Though Law tacles some arguments from assymetry, there is a far more profound assymetry to good and evil. I think that evil is ontologically secondary to good in the same way as falsehood is secondary to truth. Truth can exist without lies, but lies presuppose truth. Good can exist without evil, but evil presuppose the good. In a sense evil is parasitic upon the good. I think that you cannot explain an evil action without referring to something good. Yet you can explain something good without referring to evil. So the evil god challenge doesn't work. An evil god, (god being the creator and locus of all reality) is not only unreasonable to exist but is logically inconsistent. The evil god can only be evil in relation to good. So being god, he/she would have to be also the root or locus of good as well and hence cannot be evil. It becomes contradictory.
Stephen Law said…
I deal with this objection in some depth in the academic version of this paper published in RS. Let me know if you want a copy.

It doesn't work. Here are three reasons why:

(i) you have assumed, without argument "evil is ontologically secondary to good in the same way as falsehood is secondary to truth." Even many theists reject this. Notice also I can simply reverse it. After all "peace" is a good, and it's the absence of war, violence, etc. according to the dictionary! Some evils are best explained as absence of goods, but sometimes the reverse is true.

(ii) even if evil is ontologically secondary, whatever that means exactly, why does it follow an evil God is impossible? Actually, think about it, and you'll see it doesn't just follow (e.g. you may just be assuming there cannot be good with god, or that good/evil scale requires existence of good god). At the very least you owe us an argument. What is it?

(iii) most importantly, even if the evil God is contradictory (as the good god may be!), notice the evil god challenge still works. For we can ask, supposing there were not this logically flaw in the idea of an evil god, how reasonable do you otherwise think it would be to believe in such a being. If the answer is "very unreasonable", the onus is still on you to explain why a good god is any more reasonable.
Hypatia said…
I would like to add two points to the religious experience argument.

We know that few (if any) requests to God expressed in prayer are granted. There is also no evidence of criteria used to distinguish the worthy from unworthy requests, with lottery wins doled out but pleas to cure a child's cancer ignored. Why would a good God inspire divine scripture that exhorts us to prayer only to choose randomly which are granted, while ignoring the overwhelming majority? An evil God, however, would derive cynical pleasure from this activity, granting a paltry number of randomly-chosen prayers to keep people praying, while frustrating them with the obvious unfairness.

The Abrahamic religions are based on scriptures, which, if not the inerrant word of God are at least divinely inspired. Yet the vagueness of these scriptures has led to existence of numerous sects, dozens within Christianity alone, which hold differing interpretations. These differences of interpretation have led to internecine conflicts, such as the horror of the Thirty Years war, or fighting among the Islamic sects. An omniscient God would have forseen this future conflict when He inspired the scriptures, and could have easily inspired different words to ensure a common understanding. What possible motive would a good God have had for failing to do so? On the other hand, the motives of an evil God are clear.

Careful consideration of prayer and scripture tip the scales of religious experience heavily in favor of the evil God.
Stephen Law said…
good points, I think.
Anonymous said…
Hi, please can you send a copy of the "Academic version" to geraldmurphy1 AT gmail DOT com

Unknown said…
"But in reality we have no experience of anyone liking badness just because it is bad. The nearest we can get to it is in cruelty. But in real life people are cruel for one of two reasons- either because they are sadists, that is, because they have a sexual perversion which makes cruelty a cause of sensual pleasure to them, or else for the sake of something they are going to get out of it- money, or power, or safety. But pleasure, money, power, and safety are all, as far as they go, good things. The badness consists in pursuing them by the wrong method, or in the wrong way, or too much. You can be good for the mere sake of goodness: you cannot be bad for the mere sake of badness... In other words, badness cannot succeed even in being bad in the same way in which goodness is good. Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good first before it can be spoiled." - CS Lewis, Mere Christianity

In effect, the idea of an "all-evil" God is logically incoherent.
Stephen Law said…
Josh - "evil god incoherent" - even if true, it doesn't matter to the challenge, as i explain in the paper. Feser tried that also...
Unknown said…
Craig tries to use his moral argument to refute the Evil God challenge. He argues that without a good God, objective moral values cannot exist. But since these values do exist, then a good God exists. It is quite easy to press the case for a non-divine Platonic moral realism.

However, Craig’s moral argument comes in different forms. There’s this one:
1. If a good and loving God does not exist, then moral obligations do not exist.
2. Moral Obligations exist.
3. So, a good and loving God exists.

Premise (1) is an invocation of the modified divine command theory. Craig also makes a reference to the impossibility of moral accountability without a good God.

I propose a different evil god hypothesis. This evil god commands only the good, because he genuinely wants people to do the good (he is also impartial since he hates everyone equally; he is all-knowing; all-powerful; he is the highest authority in the universe). The difference is: the evil god would secretly send all the good people to hell. Of course, the theist might then argue that the difference implies that there really are no moral obligations or moral accountability because it is essentially unjust.
But then, to prove that moral obligations and moral accountability exist, they must prove that we have not been deceived by an evil god, and that good people really go to hell.
Unknown said…
edit: "...and that good people really don't go to hell".

As for the Fall, I don't see why it is difficult to come up with a parallel, given my story. The evil god doesn't want people to do evil, so when they decide to be evil, this results in The Fall.
Unknown said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said…
Just one more thing.

Your argument seems to do more than simply supplememt the evidential argument from evil. If it turns out to be correct, it would prove atheism.

The way I see, your argument proves that the best theistic arguments support an evil creator as equally as they support a good creator.
However, atheism= evil god v naturalism; theism= good creator. So given all the arguments for creators and all the arguments for naturalism, atheism becomes more probable than theism.

Of course, this is because the arguments for naturalism lend credence to atheism only, while the arguments for creators lend credence to both atheism and theism equally.
Matthew said…
I don't think the Evil God challenge is a challenge at all.
It seems to be based on the idea that if I can use a kind of argument as evidence for contradictory gods, then the argument is flawed.

I disagree with this idea, because the arguments don't provide evidence for God, but instead defend against the conjecture that a perfectly good deity cannot create a world containing evil.

It is possible to use reasoning to show that a wide variety of deities are compatible with a world containing good and evil. Trivially, it can shown that a morally indifferent deity could have created such a world, but that doesn't mean that a morally indifferent god exists - let alone that every conceivable morally indifferent god exists.

If the arguments can indeed be inverted to show that an evil god could have created the world, then that doesn't mean the arguments are flawed. In fact, if the arguments truly do hold for an evil god (though I don't think they do), then that means they are definitely not flawed.
Timothy McCabe said…
It seems to me that "certainty" is impossible without an authoritative, personally communicated guarantee, which can in turn only come from an authoritative, personal Guarantor. Further, this Guarantor must be perfectly honest or His guarantee is uncertain. He must be omniscient for the same reason. Thus, an omnipotent, omniscient, personal God exists, or "certainty" with regards to anything is impossible.

But how do we know that this perfectly honest God is morally upright? How do we know that He never sins?

The Bible describes "sin" as "the transgression of the law". In order for God to sin, in order for God to be immoral, He would have to command Himself to do something -- give Himself a law -- and then refuse to obey His own command for Himself.

Does an omnipotent, omniscient God who refuses to do what He Himself wants to do (an evil god) really seem just as reasonable as an omnipotent, omniscient God who actually does what He Himself wants (a good God)? I think not.

God bless.
Unfortunately the link to the paper in this blog post does not work. Is there a URL that does?

Popular posts from this blog


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Aquinas on homosexuality

Thought I would try a bit of a draft out on the blog, for feedback. All comments gratefully received. No doubt I've got at least some details wrong re the Catholic Church's position... AQUINAS AND SEXUAL ETHICS Aquinas’s thinking remains hugely influential within the Catholic Church. In particular, his ideas concerning sexual ethics still heavily shape Church teaching. It is on these ideas that we focus here. In particular, I will look at Aquinas’s justification for morally condemning homosexual acts. When homosexuality is judged to be morally wrong, the justification offered is often that homosexuality is, in some sense, “unnatural”. Aquinas develops a sophisticated version of this sort of argument. The roots of the argument lie in thinking of Aristotle, whom Aquinas believes to be scientifically authoritative. Indeed, one of Aquinas’s over-arching aims was to show how Aristotle’s philosophical system is broadly compatible with Christian thought. I begin with a sketch of Arist

Why I won't be voting Labour at the next General Election, not even to 'keep the Tories out'.

I have always voted Labour, and have often been a member of the Party, campaigning and canvassing for them. For what it’s worth, here’s my feeling about voting Labour next General Election:   1. When the left vote Labour after they move rightwards, they are encouraged to just move further right, to the point where they are now probably right of where e.g. John Major’s Tory party was. And each time the Tories go further right still. At some point we have got to stop fuelling this toxic drift to the right by making the Labour Party realise that it’s going to start costing them votes. I can’t think of anything politically more important than halting this increasingly frightening rightward slide. So I am no longer voting Labour. 2. If a new socialist party starts up, it could easily hoover up many of the 200k former LP members who have left in disgust (I’d join), and perhaps also pick up union affiliations. They could become the second biggest party by membership quite quickly. Our voting