In Response to the Logical Problem of Evil

In my recent post on ‘The Problem of Evil and God’s Moral Character‘ I had laid out some objections by contemporary as well as relatively modern thinkers on the supposed ‘moral repugnance’ of the Christian worldview, particularly directed towards the character of God in the Old Testament. To summarize this point with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he writes:

I condemn Christianity and confront it with the most terrible accusation that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. To my mind it is the greatest of all conceivable corruptions, it has had the will to the last imaginable corruption. The Christian Church allowed, nothing to escape from its corruption; it converted every value into its opposite, every truth into a lie, and every honest impulse into an ignominy of the soul. Let anyone dare to speak to me of its humanitarian blessings!… I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means are too venomous, to understand… (F. Nietzsche, The Antichrist; cp. 2006, pp. 74-75)

As one biographer comments on Nietzsche’s perspective of the Christian faith, “Nietzsche’s astonishing keen and fearless criticism of Christianity has probably sent forth wider ripples than any other stone he ever heaved into the pool of philistine contentment” (H.L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche; cp. 2006, p. 89, 93).

Of course, these kinds of extreme criticisms have been directed towards the radical side of contemporary and historical Christianity for quite some time now. An exemplary form of this line of thought can be seen coming from Annie Besant, an early British freethinker of the nineteenth century who writes in her infamously known essay ‘Why I Do Not Believe in God‘ (1887):

The man whose life is invaluable to a nation perishes in his prime, while the selfish race-haunting aristocrat lives on to a green old age. The honest conscientious trader keeps with difficulty out of the bankruptcy court, and sees his smart, unscrupulous neighbor pile up a fortune by tricks that just escape the meshes of law. If indeed there be a guiding hand amid the vicissitudes of human life, it must be that of an ironical, mocking cruelty, which plays with men as puppets for the gratification of sardonic humor (quoted from G. Stein, ‘An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism‘; cp. 1980, p. 35)

And as the literature suggests, this kind of expression to God and evil is not new. In this post I hope to deal with what is often considered among philosophers as the “Problem of Evil”, particularly in its logical form (surely there are others – evidential, probabilistic, etc. – but for the sake of my scope for this post, I am limiting myself to only the logical version). As such, we can exposit the logical version of the problem of evil in the next section.

J.L. Mackie on Evil and Omnipotence

Michael Martin is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Boston University and has written an interestingly collected volume of atheological (or atheistic) essays regarding the impossibility of God’s existence; hence it’s title, ‘The Impossibility of God‘ (2003). In Part II of his book he introduces the ‘Deductive Evil Disproofs of the Existence of God’ which begins with Mackie’s essay on evil and omnipotence. In it, he writes, “A deductive evil disproof of God’s existence, often called a logical argument from evil for God’s nonexistence, is a deductive argument based on a contradiction between the attributes of God and the existence of evil” (Martin, ‘Impossibility of God; cp. 2003, p. 59).

As Martin continues in his introduction, he writes that these sort of arguments take the ‘following general form’:

  • If God exists, then the attributes of God are consistent with the existence of evil.
  • The attributes of God are not consistent with the existence of evil.
  • Therefore, God does not and cannot exist. (p. 59)

This is ultimately the position of philosophers who have argued in favor of this argument (J.L. Mackie, Quentin Smith, Hugh LaFollette, etc.). In this post however, for matters of positing an adequate example, I will only be addressing Mackie’s version of the Problem of Evil with a few passing comments from Alvin Plantinga’s ‘Free Will Defense’ (see God and Other Minds, 1967).

The nature of these line of arguments is best explained by William Rowe in his accumulative volume, ‘God and the Problem of Evil‘ (2001) which explains the issue as such (as quoted before):

Two statements are logically inconsistent provided it is logically impossible for both of them to be true. If we can prove that GOD EXISTS and EVIL EXISTS are logically inconsistent, we will have proved that God does not exist, for it is obvious to any rational person that evil exists in the world. But can it be proved that GOD EXISTS and EVIL EXISTS are logically inconsistent? (W. E. Rowe, 75)

Hence, J.L. Mackie in his 1955 essay ‘Evil and Omnipotence‘ argues that “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false” (J.L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence, 2001: William Rowe, p. 78). A schematization of Mackie’s position can be presented with the following:

  • (1) God exists.
  • (2) Evil exists.
  • (3) Therefore, both (1) and (2) cannot be true.
  • (4) But we know (2) is true.
  • (5) Therefore, God cannot exist.

Mackie suggests that the three-fold reality of the given propositions (1) God exists (2) God is good and (3) evil exists cannot all be held together consistently. To put it in his words, “the theologian cannot consistently adhere to all three” (Ibid. p. 78).

Responses to the Logical Problem of Evil

Responses to Mackie’s position can be less intricate as they particularly need to be. In Norman Geisler’s ‘Introduction to Philosophy‘ (1980), he rewrites the original argument in rather different fashion:

  • (1) God exists.
  • (2) Evil exists.
  • [(3) There is no good purpose for evil.]
  • (4) Therefore, both (1) and (2) cannot be true.
  • (5) But we know (2) is true.
  • (6) Therefore, God cannot exist. (p. 324)

The burden at this point then falls on the atheist claiming to know several things that William Rowe himself pointed out above: (1) the logical inconsistency of God and evil, (2) no morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil, and (3) the mind of God. As the argument goes, the atheist cannot adequately account for all three. Since, as Geisler writes, “an important point sometimes overlooked by the non-theist is that since the point disputed here is logical or conceptual, all the theist needs to do is show some possible explanation for evil to defeat the non-theist’s claim. Theists are not obligated to show in fact that this is the case” (p. 324).

Matters of exposing the logical compatibility between the three propositions (a) God exists (b) God is good and (c) evil exists is neatly addressed by Alvin Plantinga. Consider the following argument:

Suppose I have a set of three propositions A, B, and C, and form them together to make logically collective set. Any pair selected from that triad of propositions will be logically consistent. For instance:

  • (A) Australia is not New Zealand.
  • (B) Puppies are cute.
  • (C) Baseballs are not typically make of cabbage.

Note that (1) none of A-C taken singly is self-contradictory, and (2) A-C taken collectively is logically consistent, then it follows that (3) any pair of propositions taken from A-C will be logically consistent. However, this is an independent truth: It does not matter if all are true or false; or some are true and some are false, as long as (1) and (2) are the case, then (3) follows. So, consider then:

  • (A) God exists
  • (B) God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing any evil that exists
  • (C) There is evil.

If we apply our A-C formula to the following propositions and consider (1) and (2), then we notice that singly none of these are self-contradictory, and that collectively they are also still logically consistent. There is no logical inconsistency between the two propositions:

  • (1) God exists
  • (2) Evil exists

In summary then, one would only need to argue that proposition (B) is the case. You could use the simple response that there is no explicit contradiction between God’s nature and the existence of evil, which this argument expounds upon more in depth. For a more exhaustive manner of Plantinga’s position, see his chapter on the Problem of Evil in his book, ‘God and Other Minds‘ (1967).


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