Facing the Problem of Evil (Part 2)

In part 1, we examined how to situate the problem of evil in conversation. While we can pray for the person and empathize when people face the emotional problem of evil, we want to have answers when they tackle the intellectual problem.

Recall two subdivisions of the intellectual problem: the logical problem of evil and the evidential problem of evil. Proponents of the logical problem argue that evil and suffering prove God cannot possibly exist. God and evil are strictly incompatible.

Proponents of the evidential problem argue that evil and suffering demonstrate the unlikelihood of God’s existence. Given the evil we observe, we probably inhabit a godless universe.

With these ideas in mind, let’s answer the challenge.

The Logical Problem

Those pressing the logical problem of evil need to show it is impossible that God exists given the evil and suffering in the world. Many scholars have abandoned this view. Alvin Plantinga reports:

 At present, however, it is widely conceded that there is nothing like straightforward contradiction or necessary falsehood in the joint affirmation of God and evil; the existence of evil is not logically incompatible (even in the broadly logical sense) with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God. [Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief, p. 117]

Why exactly have they abandoned the logical problem? Recall the famous Epicurean formulation:

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

We can reformulate the argument as follows:

  1. An all-powerful God has the ability to prevent all evil and suffering.
  2. A good God would always want to prevent evil and suffering.
  3. Yet, evil and suffering are perennially present in our world.
  4. Therefore, a good, all-powerful God cannot exist.

Proponents of the logical problem often appeal to disturbing examples of extreme evil to strengthen their case. While those examples might tug at our emotions, they do not improve the logic. It happens that (2) is false: a good God may not always want to prevent evil and suffering.

A Missing Premise

In fact, the argument ignores a key premise that many Catholic Christians hold dear:

(5) God has morally sufficient reasons for the evil and suffering in our world.

For the logical problem of evil to succeed, it must be shown that (5) is false. In other words, that God cannot possibly have morally sufficient reasons for the evil and suffering in our world. While atheists might reply, “Oh yeah, what’s the reason for this or that terribly tragedy? It’s just a pointless case of evil and suffering.”

Catholic Christians can respond as Timothy Keller does here:

 Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something doesn’t mean there can’t be one. [Keller, The Reason for God, p. 23]

By pointing out that it is possible for God, evil, and suffering to coexist, the believer evades the logical problem. If the unbeliever still maintains that God and evil are strictly incompatible, he needs an argument for this. How does he know that?

How does he know it’s impossible for an all-powerful, good God to have morally sufficient reasons for the evil and suffering in our world? This burden of proof has never been met.


Catholic philosopher Edward Feser sums up the situation well in this blog article:

I have argued that the existence of even the worst evils gives us absolutely no reason whatsoever to doubt the existence and goodness of the God of classical theism. In that sense the problem of evil poses no intellectual difficulty for theism. But I have also insisted that evil poses an enormous practical difficulty, because while we can know with certainty that God has a reason for allowing the evil He does, we are very often simply not in a position to know what that reason is in this or that particular case.

Feser continues:

We can know some of the general ways in which good can be drawn out of evil – our free choices have a significance that they would not have otherwise; we can make of our sufferings an opportunity for penance for the sins we have committed; we are able to develop moral virtues such as patience, gratitude, courage, compassion, and so forth – but we cannot expect always to know why this specific child was allowed to be raped and murdered or that specific village was allowed to be destroyed by an earthquake.

Our Updated Flow Chart

Next post, we’ll consider the evidential problem of evil.

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