The previous chapter provided an overview of several popular arguments for the existence of God, and found them wanting. In this chapter, we will see that there exists, in addition, at least one very powerful argument against the existence of God.
The problems of evil
God, as traditionally conceived by the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, has at least three important characteristics. First, God is omnipotent or maximally powerful. God has the ability to create the universe and destroy it again. Being the creator and sustainer of the laws of nature, he is also free to break them by, for example, raising people from the dead or parting the Red Sea. Secondly, God is omniscient. His knowledge is unlimited. He knows even our most private thoughts. Thirdly, God is, supposed supremely benevolent. Indeed, God is often characterized as watching over us as a loving parent watches over his children. God, it is said, is love.
I shall use the term “Theist” with a capital “T” to refer to those who believe in such a.being, and “God” with a capital G as the name of that Being. Small initial “theists”, by contrast, are those who believe in a god or gods, whether or not it happens to be God.
If God has the three characteristics of omnipotence, omniscience and supreme benevolence, this raises a very obvious and familiar challenge to Theism, a challenge known as the problem of evil. In fact, there are two problems of evil: the logical problem and the evidential problem.
The logical problem of evil
The logical problem of evil begins with the thought that the claim:
(1) There exists an omnipotent, omniscient and maximally good God
is logically inconsistent with the claim:
(2) Evil exists
By ‘evil’, here, we mean both suffering and morally wrong actions. The argument runs like so: (2) is true, therefore, (1) is false. Why? Because an omnipotent God would have the power to prevent evil, an omniscient God would know it exists, and a supremely benevolent God would want to prevent it. The existence of evil, then, might appear logically to entail that there is no such being.
Note that the quantity of evil that exists is irrelevant to this version of the problem. It requires only that there exist some, no matter how little.
Many Theists maintain the logical problem of evil does not present an insuperable challenge to belief in God. In response , they typically try to show that an all-powerful, all-knowing and maximally good God might allow some evil for the sake of a greater good.
For example, some Theists believe that God gave us free will – the ability freely to choose to do good or evil. As a result of our acting freely, evil exists. However, this evil is more than outweighed by other goods, including the good of our possessing free will. So, though it might sound paradoxical, this is actually a better world than one lacking free will, despite the fact that, as a result of free will, there exists, say, war and murder. That is why the existence of such evils does not entail that there is no God.
The evidential problem of evil
However, there is another, to my mind far more serious, problem of evil facing Theism – the evidential problem of evil. The evidential problem rests, not on the thought that the truth of (2) logically entails the falsehood of (1), but on the thought that (2) provides us with good evidence against (1). The quantity of evil does now become relevant. While we might concede that God might allow some evil (for the sake of a greater good), surely there could be no good reason for God to allow quite so much?
We can sharpen the evidential problem by noting that God will presumably not allow gratuitous suffering to exist. Presumably, if God exists, he has good reason to allow every last ounce of it.
I recently watched an episode of the BBC TV series Life. At the end of the programme, one of the cameramen was interviewed, and I was struck that he said. He revealed that, after just a few weeks on the job, he was already considering of giving up wild-life photography because he found it too harrowing. This cameraman was struggling to cope with the extraordinary degree of suffering the creatures he was filming were going through. That kind of suffering – appalling suffering, on a vast, global scale – has of course been going on, not just for a few weeks, but for many hundreds of millions of years, long, long before we humans made our very recent appearance.
When we begin to consider the enormous quantities of suffering that exist - including the hundreds of millions of years of animal suffering that occurred before we humans made our recent appearance – doesn’t it quickly become apparent that it cannot all be accounted for in this way?
It appears, then, that the claim that the God of classical monotheism exists is straightforwardly empirically falsified. Perhaps there is a god or gods. But the God of traditional monotheism appears to be fairly conclusively ruled out, given the available evidence.
Those who believe in God respond to the evidential problem of evil in a variety of ways. Some maintain there are good grounds for supposing that, not only is there a god, this being does indeed have the properties attributed to him by traditional monotheism. So, while there may be evidence against the existence of such a God, it is at least counter-balanced by this evidence for. I return to that suggestion later in this chapter. Theists may also insist that the evidential problem of evil can, to a significant extent, be dealt with. Many theistic explanations of evil have been offered, including the following four examples:
Simple free will solution. God made us free agents with the ability to choose how to act. Having free will, we sometimes choose to do wrong. Suffering can result. However, free will also allows for certain important goods, such as the possibility of morally virtuous action. God could have created a world populated with puppet creatures that always did as he commands. But the behaviour of such puppet beings lacks the dimension of moral responsibility that makes our actions genuinely virtuous. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some evil (such as that done by Hitler). But these evils are more than outweighed by the important– such as possibility of genuinely virtuous action.
The ‘character-building’ solution. According to the theologian John Hick, this world is a ‘vale of soul making’. You will, of course, be familiar with the idea that bad experiences can make us stronger, better people. For example, someone who has suffered a serious and painful illness will sometimes say they don’t regret it, because they learnt a great deal from the experience. By causing us pain and suffering, God furnishes us with important opportunities, including the opportunity to learn important lessons, and to grow and develop morally and spiritually. It is only through suffering that we can eventually become the noble souls God intends us to be.
Second-order goods require first-order evils. God had inevitably to create a certain amount of suffering so that certain important goods could obtain. Take charity, for example. In order for me to be charitable, I must suppose there are others who are in need, and who might benefit from my generosity. Charity is a second order good that require first order evils like neediness and suffering (or at least their appearance) to exist. It is because the second order goods outweigh the first order evils that God permits them.
When offered in response to the evidential problem of evil, such explanations are sometimes called theodicies. Many such theodicies have been developed. Some Theists believe that, even if the evidential problem of evil has not been entirely solved, such theodicies collectively bring the problem down to at least a manageable size, so that we can longer say that that Theism has been straightforwardly empirically falsified.
Still, Theists often acknowledge that it is certainly isn’t easy to explain why God would inflict quite so much pain and suffering on the sentient inhabitants of this planet. So some supplement these various explanations with a further appeal – to mystery. God, they insist, works in mysterious ways. Because God is infinitely knowledgeable and intelligent, his divine plan is likely to be mostly ‘beyond our ken’ But then the fact that the reason for much of the evil that exists is beyond our understanding is not good evidence that there is no God.
The evil god hypothesis
Of course, most atheists consider these various explanations for moral catastrophes and natural disasters fairly hopeless. It seems to many that the sheer quantity of suffering and moral depravity that exists does constitute excellent evidence that there is no such God. To many, it appears fairly obvious that there is no God.
Could it be fairly obvious that there is no God, even given the appeal to mystery and the various theodicies and other strategies Thesists have developed to defend their belief? My personal view is that, yes, it could.
To see why, consider a rather different belief: that the universe was designed and created by an omnipotent, omniscient being. Only this being is not all-good. Rather, he is supremely evil. His cruelty and malice are without limit. How reasonable a belief is this?
Almost everyone considers the evil god hypothesis absurd. It is obviously false. Why? Well, there is, for a start, a great deal of evidence against it. Surely, an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-evil being would not allow quite so many good things into his creation. Why, for example, would such an evil being:
• Create natural beauty, that gives us so much joy?
• Give us children to love who love us unconditionally in return. Evil god despises love, and so is hardly likely to introduce these bundles of joy into his creation.
• Give us healthy bodies so that we can enjoy sports, sex, and so on?
• Allow us to help each other and alleviate each other’s suffering. That, surely, is not the sort of behaviour an evil god would tolerate? He would clamp down on the activity of the selfless Florence Nightingales of this world and, and compel them to cause greater suffering, not remove it.
• Bestow upon at least some people immense health, wealth and happiness?
Don’t these observable features of the universe provide us with overwhelming evidence against the evil god hypothesis? Surely it is fairly obvious that there is no such being, given such evidence? We might call this problem facing the evil god hypothesis the evidential problem of good.
But perhaps we have been too hasty in rejecting belief in an evil god. Notice that we might try to defend belief in an evil god by developing explanations such as these.
Simple free will solution. We are not blind automata, but free agents. As a consequence of evil god having given us free will, we sometimes choose to do good. However, free will allows for certain important evils, such as the possibility of morally depraved actions. God could have created a universe populated with puppet beings that always did evil. But the behaviour of such puppet beings would lack the dimension of moral responsibility that makes actions genuinely evil. By cutting our strings and setting us free, God inevitably allowed some good (such as that done by Mahatma Gandhi). But these goods are more than outweighed by the important evils – such as genuinely morally evil actions - that free will allows.
The ‘character-destroying solution. This is a vale of soul destruction. Why does evil god pepper our world with beauty? To make the dreariness and ugliness of day to day life seem all the more acute. Why does he give us healthy young bodies? Well, yes, he gives us them for a short time, and then slowly and inexorably takes our health and vitality away, until we end up incontinent, arthritic and decrepit. It is so much more cruel to give someone something wonderful and then take it from them than never to have given it to them at all. And of course, evil god makes sure that even while we enjoy good health, we are filled with anxiety knowing it could all be snatched away by a disease or accident. Why does he give us children whom we love more than life itself? Because this allows evil god to inflict greater tortures on us. We can only be made to agonize and fear for our children because we care about them. The more we care, the more we can be made to suffer.
Second order evils require first order goods. Theists may remind us that God had inevitably to create a reasonable amount of good in order that certain important evils could exist. Take, for example, jealousy. Jealousy is an important vice, but it can only exist if there exist people who have good things worth coveting – such as health, wealth and happiness and material wealth. Jealousy is a so-called second order evil that requires certain first order goods. It is because the second order evil outweighs the first order goods that God allows those goods to exist.
Notice these explanations can be supplemented by a further manoeuvre – an appeal to mystery. Evil god works in mysterious ways. Being infinitely knowledgeable and intelligent, God’s diabolical plan is likely to be mostly ‘beyond our ken’. In which case, the fact that the reason for much of the good that exists does lie beyond our understanding is not good evidence that there is no such malignant being.
There are some obvious symmetries between the good and evil god hypotheses. These who believe in a good God face the evidential problem of evil. Those who believe in an evil god face the evidential problem of good. Those who believe in a good God may try to deal with the problem of evil by constructing theodicies, such as the free-will and character-building theodicies, and by appealing to mystery. Similarly, those who believe in an evil god may construct mirror theodicies, and also appeal to mystery, in order to deal with the problem of good. Indeed, mirror theodicies can also be constructed for most other theodicies as well.
How reasonable is belief in an evil god, compared belief in the God of traditional monotheism? Almost everyone recognises that, even given these various ingenious defensive manoeuvres, belief in a supremely evil deity remains absurd. I suppose it is possible that such a being exists. But surely it is overwhelmingly unlikely given the available evidence.
But if that is true, why should we consider belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God significantly more reasonable? If the sheer quantity of good we observe in the world really is excellent evidence that there is no evil god, why isn’t the sheer quantity of evil excellent evidence that there is no God?
Those who believe in the god of traditional monotheism face a challenge. In the previous chapter, we saw that some of the most important and popular arguments widely supposed to provide belief in God with at least a fair degree of rational support actually provide no more support for belief in a good God than they do, say, an evil god. We have seen that the problem of good does appear to provide overwhelming empirical evidence against the evil god hypothesis, not withstanding the various mirror theodicies and the appeal to mystery that might be made in its defence. But then, if those who believe in a good God consider their belief to be, if not “proved” then at least not unreasonable, the onus is surely now on them to explain why their belief should be consider significantly more reasonable than belief in an evil god.
I don’t say this challenge cannot be met. However, I cannot see how, which is why I consider belief in the God of traditional monotheism to be hardly more reasonable than belief in an evil god, the latter, surely, being very unreasonable indeed.
Miracles and religious experience
Let’s briefly consider some suggestions as to how this challenge to the rationality of Theism might be met. One fairly obvious strategy would be to try to provide arguments for supposing that not only is there a creator god, this being is good. While the arguments from design discussed in the previous chapter may not support the good god hypothesis any more than they do the evil god hypothesis, perhaps other arguments do clearly favour the good god hypothesis?
Obvious candidates are the argument from miracles and the argument from religious experience. People regularly pray that someone should be cured of an otherwise incurable disease, and occasionally these prayers are answered. God supernaturally intervenes to perform a miracle. Isn’t such supernatural activity evidence of the existence of a benevolent god, not a malevolent one? Moreover, when people report religious experiences, they generally report a very positive experience, e.g. an experience of something immeasurably loving and good. Again, doesn’t this provide us with at least some evidence that there is not just a god, but a God?
I am not so sure. If I were an evil god, I would not necessarily want people to know I was evil, particularly if, by pretending to be good, I could actually produce more evil.
For example, if I was an evil god, I might appear to two different populations in a “good” guise and perform supernatural miracles to convince each that I was real. If I then tell one population things that contradict what I tell the other, the result is entirely predictable. There will be conflict. Indeed, it will probably be endless conflict of a particularly vicious sort, given each population now possesses good evidence that the one true God is on their side, and that their opponents are deniers of God’s Truth.
So are religious miracles and experiences better evidence of a good God than an evil god? Surely, a good God, knowing the horrendous moral catastrophes that are likely to result from him revealing himself in this way, would avoid doing so. He would ensure there was no such confusion about which religion was correct. An evil god, by contrast, might well calculate that revealing himself in such a deceptive and confusing manner would create a situation in which moral evil and suffering were likely to flourish. So it is not clear that religious experiences and miracles are better evidence of a good God than an evil god. Indeed, we might argue that their actual distribution of these phenomena actually fits the evil god hypothesis rather better than it fits the good. Perhaps it is more reasonable to believe in an evil god than a good God?
Are there other theodicies that are more successful in defending Theism, theodicies that cannot be mirrored? Other standard theodicies that can be mirrored include, for example:
Semantic theodicy. The terms “good and “evil”, when applied to god, mean something other than what they mean when applied to mere human beings. God, being a transcendent being, cannot adequately be characterized in such human terms. This explains why an action that would be deemed evil if performed by a human (such as inflicting great suffering on an innocent person) need not be evil if performed by God.
It takes but a moments thought to realize that much the same manoeuvre can be used to explain why an evil good would do things that, if done by a human, would be deemed “good”.
It is also possible to mirror the following popular type of theodicy:
Laws of nature solution. In order for moral agents to have the opportunity to act in the world, and interact with each other in it, the world has to behave in a regular way. There must be laws of nature, for example, that determine that when I strike this match, a flame will result. Such laws allow for great goods. For example, they allow me to perform morally good actions - e.g. light a fire to warm a cold friend. However, these same laws of nature also result in earthquakes other natural disasters. These evils are the price paid for greater goods. We might suppose we can imagine a worlds governed by different laws that are better than the actual world – that are earthquake-free, for example – and so we may wonder why God did not create such a world. But such worlds are, in ways we are unable to foresee, always less good than the actual world. For example, while a world governed by different laws might not have earthquakes, it might, as a consequence, also lack the kind of planetary crust on which mammals can evolve. Such an earthquake-free world would, then, be a world without us – and so a less good world after all.
This theodicy can also be mirrored. In order for there to be such great evils as – deliberate, freely-chosen acts of arson and murder – the world must behave in a regular way. There must be laws of nature. As a result of these laws, some goods, e.g. beautiful sunsets, may obtain. They are the price evil god pays for the greater evils. You might think you can envisage worlds governed by different laws that are better than the actual world. But such worlds will always turn out to be better than the actual world.
Evil and The Fall
So many standard theodicies can be mirrored to deal with the problem of good. However, I believe there is at least one standard theodicy that cannot easily be mirrored. St. Augustine tried to explain the natural evils by supposing that they are a result of the Fall. Adam and Eve inhabited a perfect world untroubled by natural disasters and disease; when they disobeyed God and sinned, they corrupted not only themselves, but nature too. Disease, natural disasters and death are a result of this corruption. So these evils are, in effect, a result of free will. Adam and Eve freely chose to sin, and so do we. As a result, we suffer terribly. The suffering would cease if only we stopped sinning.
It is not clear to me that a mirror version of this Augustinian theodicy can be produced. Attempts to construct an even vaguely coherent reverse story about a reverse Adam and Eve, who, by disobeying their evil creator, bring about a reverse Fall, thereby creating natural goods, runs into all sorts of difficulties. It may be that rather different narrative involving an evil god might be constructed to account for natural goods, but it is hard to see how it could mirror the story of the Fall in sufficient detail to qualify as a reverse theodicy.
So perhaps not every standard theodicy designed to defend belief in a good God can be flipped round to produce a reverse theodicy that might be used to defend belief in an evil god.
However, while Augustine’s theodicy appears not to be reversible, it is particularly weak. Adam and Eve never existed. But then their sin cannot explain contemporary natural disasters. Nor can earthquakes be explained as a consequence of our own sin. Earthquakes are produced by the movement of tectonic plates which, given the laws of nature, are going to cause earthquakes anyway, whether we sin or not. And of course, we know that earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, diseases, and so on were occurring for millions of years before moral agents capable of sinning even existed. How, then, can the immense suffering these events caused the earlier inhabitants of the Earth be a result of sin, or of some sort of Biblical “Fall”?