General Theism (Part 6): Evil

If God is omnipotent and benevolent, why is there such tremendous evil and suffering in the world? This oft-asked question lies at the heart of the Problem of Evil, which many theists regard as the strongest objection to the existence of God. Recalling our Bayesian statistics from the previous post, the atheist’s objective here is to demonstrate that evil is much more compatible with atheism than it is with theism. As a theist, I don’t need to show that evil is more probable on theism than atheism – there can be evidence against a true fact. I just need to show that the expectedness gap isn’t as large as it would need to be to outweigh the positive evidence for God’s existence.

So just how big is the explanatory gap between atheism and theism when it comes to evil? Historically, many atheists have tried to argue that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with theism (i.e. the probability of God and evil coexisting is 0) – if they were right, this objection would singlehandedly end the discussion. Fortunately for the theist, this ambitious form of the objection has been largely abandoned due to the work of Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga (who’s definitely worth reading, particularly if you’re interested in the theory of knowledge). But we aren’t out of the woods yet – even if the probability of evil given God’s existence is nonzero, it could still be so low that evil counts as devastatingly powerful evidence against God.

The argument will hinge on a single question: how likely is it that God has morally justifying reasons for permitting the evil we see? The atheist typically answers that they don’t see any morally justifying reasons for permitting, say, a child getting run over by a car. This is colloquially called a “noseeum” argument, and noseeum arguments vary significantly in power. If I use a noseeum argument to back up my assertion that there isn’t an elephant in the room, I’ve got a solid position; if I use one to argue that there’s no flea in the room, I’m on much shakier ground. So are morally justifying reasons more like elephants (we’d likely see them if they were there), or are they more like fleas (they’d be hard to see even if they exist)?

To argue that they’re more like fleas, the theist can provide sample explanations for why God may permit evil (called theodicies) that would be hard to see in particular cases. For example, suppose (as Christianity maintains) that knowing God is an incommensurable good, meaning that it’s worth anything we could give for it. Then a world with more evil and pain could still be better overall if more people came to know God as a result. But how plausible is it that the worlds in which the most people come to know God have as much suffering as we see in ours? Actually, quite! Many Christians can personally attest to the fact that they’ve come to know God as a result of disaster or pain, and this anecdotal trend has been well-substantiated statistically by analysis of the growth of evangelical Christianity during immensely painful periods in a nation’s history (ex. China, El Salvador, Ethiopia). So it seems plausible that if Christianity were true, God may permit some instances of evil and suffering so that a maximal number of people come to know Him. (There are many proposed theodicies that complement each other – you can see 10 more at

Theodicies are further complicated by the so-called “butterfly effect”; a single event can have its first major consequence many years and miles away from its occurrence. Even if permitting an act of evil results in tremendous good 150 or 15000 years from now, we may not be able to determine that from our perspective, which is limited to a very small region of time and space.

So while the theist acknowledges that evil exists and that God would not permit evil unless He had morally justifying reasons to do so, the theist can maintain that we simply don’t have the ability to confidently conclude that such reasons don’t actually exist – like fleas, they may just be incredibly hard to see from our vantage point. Since the atheist is the one mounting the objection, this rebuttal suffices to ward off the force of the objection without major damage to the theist’s position.