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Friday, January 28, 2011

The Evidential Problem of Evil

The Evidential Problem of Evil is related to the Logical Problem of Evil in that it tries to show that the characteristics of God, as He is commonly conceived, are inconsistent with what we observe in the world. The Evidential Problem of Evil differs from the Logical version in a few smalls ways, though. Proponents of the Evidential version, for example, focus more Natural evils, such as disease and natural disasters, rather than Moral Evils such as murder and theft.

Also, the Logical version is a deductive argument, while the Evidential version is merely inductive. By that I mean that the Logical version attempts to show that because there exists evil in the world, there must not be a God. However, the Evidential version only claims that because there there is evil in the world, God probably does not exist. It's important to point out, then, that even if the Evidential Problem is entirely valid and accurate, it still does not disprove the existence of God, it only lowers the probability that He exists.

There are actually many refutations to the Evidential Problem of Evil. Here I describe only a few. Keep in mind that the goal here is not to prove Christian doctrine true, but only to show that it is consistent with the presence of evil in the world.

Consequences of Sin

This is probably the most common explanation for Natural Evils, and it is possibly the most consistent with Christian Doctrine. While I do not believe in the “Original Sin”, the idea that we are held morally culpable for Adam's transgression, I do believe that all people are, to some degree, sinful and subject pain, sorrow, and death. In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, the Lord described the consequences of their actions.
“16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art,and unto dust shalt thou return.”

The Lord himself explains that suffering, pain, and ultimately death, are the direct result of unrighteousness. Natural evils are the natural result of our own unrighteous choices. Just as the natural result of jumping off a building is getting splattered across the sidewalk, the natural result of sin is a corrupt and fallen world.

Natural Disasters

The Bible also talks a little about natural disasters. It includes natural disasters as also being caused, at least in part, by the sins and wickedness of man. This seems to be supported by Isaiah 24:20:
“20 The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.”

The Earth itself responds to our wickedness and reels under the burden of our sin. God is no more to blame for our hardships than the sidewalk is for us splattering ourselves across it. But even if Natural Evils can also be explained by sin, we still need to explain the suffering of infants, those born with disabilities, etc.


The Bible admits that not all suffering is because of sin on the Earth. In John 9, Jesus and the Apostles discussed briefly one explanation for those born with disabilities.
“1And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
2And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
3Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
Jesus admits that not all hardship is the result of sin, but is sometimes allowed for a greater good. In this case, it was to show God's power to heal (in the following verses). It may not give any comfort to know that the Lord would impose His will in such a seemingly cruel way, but the argument could be made that we agreed to it beforehand. In the verses above, the Apostles seem to believe in a pre-mortal existence. Otherwise, when do they suppose this man sinned that he was born blind? Jesus also makes no attempt to correct this presumption. Jehovah also describes this to Job, in Job 38:7, saying that before the world was made, “all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Not only were we aware of the hardships that mortality would bring, but in light of the whole plan we were so satisfied and willing with it that we all shouted for joy.

Of course, there are also many cases when the individual is not cured and some even die while still an infant. These individuals will presumably be compensated in the afterlife.

Compensation in the Afterlife

The argument of compensation in the afterlife is also consistent with Christian doctrine, but is a little controversial. It is the idea that the joys of heaven will make up for any hardship experienced on Earth. Not all denominations agree on what exactly this compensation will be, and I will refrain from commenting on the beliefs of other denominations, but the LDS church holds that individuals who die before becoming morally self-aware, either because of youth, mental handicap, etc, get a free ticket the Kingdom of God. A person cannot be held accountable for knowledge they do not have. While other conditions are not addressed in much detail, it is clear that the Lord's Final Judgment will be more lenient on some individuals depending on their circumstances in mortality.

The reason this argument is controversial is because of some commentary by Bertrand Russell, who said:

“If you looked at the matter from a scientific point of view, you would say, ‘After all, I only know this world. I do not know about the rest of the universe, but so far as one can argue at all on probabilities one would say that probably this world is a fair sample, and if there is injustice here then the odds are that there is injustice elsewhere also.’ Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue: ‘The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.’ You would say: ‘Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment;’ and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. He would say: ‘Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice, and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favor of one.'”

However, this argument only works if we were speculating and making assumptions about a world we knew nothing of, based on what we observe here. However, we do know that if there is a christian heaven, it is in fact quite different from this world. We know that if it is there, than this world is no indication of the justice and order there. If not, then we are not speaking of Christian doctrine or a Christian God and the Problem of Evil would be completely irrelevant.

Soul-making or Irenaean Theodicy

This is another of the most common responses to the Problem of Evil. It is the idea that evil and hardship are necessary for spiritual growth. It's similar to the idea that evil is complementary to good. The argument says that we need natural evils such as pain, suffering, and hardship to give us opportunities to develop virtues. There is no bravery without danger. There is no compassion without suffering. Through hardship we learn important lessons. It is often said that this life is a test, and tests were made to be difficult and trying experiences. That's why they are called tests. They are trials.

I think there is some validity to this. After all, a person who gets whatever they want is never really happy. Anyone who has had to spend any significant amount of time with a spoiled child has also spent time hating their parents. It is not good to give them every little thing they want. It's good for them to be denied things here and there. Likewise, God knows he can't spoil us. Things can't always be how we would like them to be. It's not good for us.

The idea that trials and tribulation helps us to learn virtuous traits is also supported by scripture. Hebrews 12:5-7, 9-11 say:

“5And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him:
6For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.
7If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?
9Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?10For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.
11Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”

Like children, we do not always enjoy the process of being raised, we may be angry with our parents when they punish us or withhold privileges, but in the end we are better people for it.


There are many more responses to the Evidential Problem of Evil, some of which may be presented in the future, but these are the most common. Which do I think is correct? All of them, in various cases. When I listen to people criticizing these answers, they seem to do so with the mindset that each one must account for every instance of natural evil in the world. This makes the assumption that Natural Evil may only have one cause, thus we are looking for a single idea that accounts for every evil. I don't think this is the case at all. I think it's pretty demonstrable that certain hardships may have one cause (sin, for example), while others may have other causes (our need to grow spiritually). Thus it very well be the case that many theories may be correct, though only in certain cases.


Quotidian Torture said...

This one took me a while, because I had a lot to say, but here's my response.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

I would like to put my Stamp of Approval on the above link. While I do disagree with some of the arguments there, they are, at least, well thought out and show important criticisms to the arguments above.

Quotidian Torture said...

Okay, I'll admit that I was a bit unsatisfied with your arguments here, but I am yet again impressed (and thankful) that you've chosen to engage in an honest and spirited debate. It reflects well on you. Especially compared to what I've come to view as an almost chronic dishonesty in theology and apologetics.

I'll have a reply to your reply (to my reply to your original post o_O) up asap.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

I'm equally thankful that you have not been hostile and argumentative, as my experience with some people have been. You seem like a good person. I wouldn't call other apologists “dishonest”, but I have also noticed a tendency to close their eyes, plug their ears, and pretend they can't hear you. That's not how you search for truth.

I think it's totally understandable for you to be unsatisfied by these arguments. People have been arguing about this for a long, long time. We're not the first and we won't be the last. However, I am curious how far we can take it, so I look forward to your response.

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