Is it likely that God exists, given the existence of evil? — The Problem of Evil (Part 3)

This post is part of an ongoing series. Click to view part 1, and part 2. In part 2 we dealt with the logical problem of evil, concluding that the existence of evil does not present a logical problem for Christian theism. Today we will examine another form of the problem of evil.


Most philosophers today realize that there is no logical problem of evil as Hume, Mackie, and others have proposed. Nevertheless, the problem of evil is still alive—it has merely changed its form. The form that exists today is known as the Evidential Problem, or the Probabilistic Problem. That is, given the amount of evil evident in our world, it is improbable that an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being exists.

The issue with such an argument is that probability is only as good as the data you begin with. If one begins with inaccurate or incomplete data, his probability conclusions will likely be lacking. Let’s take an example of incomplete data to illustrate this point. Mitch Stokes writes,

Imagine you know that, years ago, you had a student who failed every math course he took, sometimes twice. Now, given what you know, the probability is very low that this student would go on to become a stellar engineering student, acing every mathematics course in graduate school. (This is in fact why colleges look at the student’s transcripts.)[1]

But then he goes on to say,

But then imagine you find out that, during his first year in college, he decided to get down to business and work diligently while also learning the proper study methods. You discover that all through high school this student was holding back, an under-achiever of the first order. Now given everything you know, the probability of this student being an excellent engineering student is much higher.[2]

All that is needed to show that something that seemed improbable is in fact probable, is to provide further information. Now let’s relate this to the probabilistic problem of evil. For the sake of argument let’s assume that, given the information we currently have about the evils of the world and about the Christian conception of God, it is improbable that the Christian God exists. Even if this were true, it would not constitute a very strong argument. For how do we know that there is no further information about God or His plan that would reorient us to see evil in a different light?

This problem is compounded when one realizes the radical otherness of God—His holiness and transcendence. “[W]e are not in a good epistemic position to make these kinds of probability decisions with any sort of confidence,” writes J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, “As finite persons, we are limited in space and time, in intelligence and insight. But the transcendent and sovereign God sees the end of history from its beginning and providentially orders history so that His purposes are ultimately achieved through human free decisions.”[3] His thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are His ways our ways (Isaiah 55:8). When Job questioned God in the midst of his suffering, God answered in part,

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? (Job 38:2-6).

If one wants to call into question the existence of the biblical God, intellectual honesty requires that he take seriously what the Bible says about Him. The Bible says that He is infinite and beyond full human comprehension. His ways are not our ways. Probability will not work because there is an infinite storehouse of further information that no statistician can take into account. In reality, the only god that the probabilistic problem can successfully discredit is the atheist’s own conception of God. And that is a god who, by definition, nobody believes in.



[1]Mitch Stokes, A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists (Thomas Nelson, 2012), 194.


[3] James Porter Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (InterVarsity Press, 2003), 543.


Does evil logically disprove the existence of God?— The Problem of Evil (Part 2)

In the last post I gave a brief introduction to the study of the problem of evil, covering the two basic forms of the problem and some preliminary definitions. You can view that post here. This week I want to dig a little deeper into the logical problem of evil and see if it can be answered.


The logical problem of evil says that God (as defined by Scripture), and evil cannot both logically exist in the same possible world.[1] Since evil and suffering clearly exist, God must not exist. Two mutually exclusive things cannot coexist. For example, a poison that would kill any creature is a perfectly logical possibility, yet so is the idea of a creature that could drink any poison and live. However, it is logically impossible for both to exist in the same possible world. This is the type of contradiction alleged by the logical problem. Even assuming that God could exist, and that evil could exist, both could not exist in the same possible world. Since it is evident that evil exists in our world, God cannot exist.

Instead of examining David Hume’s version of the problem as mentioned in the last post, we will turn to someone a little more recent: the Australian philosopher John Mackie. Mackie writes, “In its simplest form the problem is this: God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; 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.”[2] Out of all the responses to the logical problem of Evil, Alvin Plantinga’s recent response is without question the most well known. In God, Freedom, and Evil, Plantinga attempts to show that there is no logical problem with the three propositions (1) God is omnipotent, (2) God is wholly good, and (3) Evil exists, as Mackie posits. In apparent contradictions such as these, all that needs to be produced is an additional proposition that is consistent with each of the propositions already mentioned. Consider this set for an example: (A) Tom despises garbage dumps, (B) It is within Tom’s power to avoid all garbage dumps, and (C) Tom spends hours every day at a garbage dump. Mackie’s words fit here as well “There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions,”[3] however a fourth proposition can make sense of it all. (D) Tom makes 50 dollars an hour working at the city garbage dump. Likewise, all Plantinga has to do is find an additional proposition that is consistent with each in the set 1-3.

Art by Chris Koelle. From the illustrated poem by John Piper "Job."

Art by Chris Koelle. From the illustrated poem by John Piper “Job.”

Finding a proposition that would be consistent with both Christian theism, and propositions 1-3 above is actually quite simple. Plantinga gives us this proposition: (3’) “God creates a world containing evil and has a good reason for doing so.”[4] It may sound simplistic, but it is immediately apparent that the “problem,” as stated, is less than an explicitly logical one. However, it would be less than honest to stop here and say that (3’) has solved Mackie’s problem. This is because Mackie himself realized that 1-3 where not explicitly contradictory. He proceeded to propose three more propositions which he believed would seal the deal.

(4) “Good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can”[5] and, (5) “there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.”[6] From these clarifications of what Mackie means by “good” and “omnipotent” a further proposition could be deduced which would finally produce a logical problem. He writes, (6) “a good, omnipotent being eliminates evil completely,”[7] and of course this would be a direct contradiction to 1-3 (if we include the fact of God’s omniscience—an easy escape-route for the theist that Mackie seemed to have overlooked. For example, if God was oblivious to evil He could not be morally responsible to do anything about it). We will add God’s omniscience to proposition (1). So far the propositions are as follows:

  1. God is omnipotent and omniscient.
  2. God is wholly good.
  3. Evil exists.
  4. A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.
  5. There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.
  6. A good omnipotent being eliminates evil completely.

It is true that (6) logically follows from (4) and (5), and that if (6) is true then 1-3 cannot be, and therefore God cannot exist if Evil does. But are 4-5 true? Not obviously. If either is found lacking, then (6) breaks down, and the contradiction no longer exists. Plantinga first tackles proposition (5). “There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.”[8] This is clearly not true; no matter how powerful a being is, it cannot do what is logically impossible for example.[9] God cannot create another uncreated being, or make a rock too heavy to lift, or both exist and not exist. So, immediately we must rephrase (5) to “There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent thing can do,” and with it proposition (6).[10] Proposition (6) now reads, “A good, omnipotent being eliminates all evil that is logically possible to eliminate.” Strictly speaking the contradiction is already eradicated (6 no longer explicitly contradicts 1-3), but there is still more.

Consider now, (4), “A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.”[11] This is not strictly true either. Consider this example: in order to graduate on time, Kyle was forced to take an 8 A.M. class three days a week in the final semester of his senior year (a period which he consistently tried to avoid). Doing so required Kyle to wake up earlier than he preferred, to miss seeing his wife in the mornings, and to experience much heavier traffic than he had in previous semesters. Upon hearing of Kyle’s dilemma, his professor contrived a solution. The next day Kyle received an email explaining that he had been graciously expelled him from his 8A.M. class. From that time on, Kyle could sleep in every morning, could eat breakfast with his wife, and would miss the brunt of the morning traffic. His professor had eliminated the evil conditions that Kyle was facing. While few would say that the professor’s actions where “good”—Kyle could no longer graduate on time—no one can deny that they where consistent with (4). Therefore proposition (4) should be modified to read, “A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, as long as doing so does not create a greater evil or obstruct a good that outweighs that evil.” Proposition (6) now needs to be updated to reflect the changes to (4): (6) “A good, omnipotent being eliminates all evil that is logically possible to eliminate and which does not create a greater evil or obstruct a good that outweighs that evil.”

In updating the entire set it becomes clear that the alleged contradiction has disappeared.

  1. God is omnipotent and omniscient
  2. God is wholly good
  3. Evil exists
  4. A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can as long as doing so does not create a greater evil, or obstruct a good that outweighs that evil
  5. There are no nonlogical limits to what an omnipotent thing can do
  6. A good, omnipotent being eliminates all evil that is logically possible to eliminate and which does not create a greater evil or obstruct a good that outweighs that evil.

Clearly, (6) does not explicitly contradict 1-3, and in reality the theist’s work is done. All that really needed to be shown was that 1-3 (or the expanded 1-6) does not contain a contradiction. The atheist must now attempt to argue that there is no logically-possible scenario in which God could not eliminate evil without either creating a greater evil or obstructing a greater good. On the other hand, the theist, if he so desired, could postulate such a scenario and call the game. Doing so is beyond the scope of this post, besides, many have already done this work. One such example is Plantinga’s “Free-Will Defense” detailed in God, Freedom, and Evil[12] (the book in which much of the preceding logic originated). Plantinga’s Free-Will Defense (FWD) is so well developed that it has almost entirely eradicated the logical problem of evil from the arguments of serious philosophers today.[13] It must be understood that whether or not one believes in the truth of his scenario is irrelevant; in order for it to fail it must be shown to be logically impossible since the logical problem of evil charges the theist with a logical contradiction.[14]

It is clear from Plantinga’s work on this subject that there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of God and our experience of evil. Next time on the blog we will consider a more prevalent version of the problem used today.


[1]See Ronald Nash for an explanation of “Possible Worlds.” Ronald H. Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions (Zondervan, 1999), 209–227.

[2]Basil Mitchell, The Philosophy of Religion (Oxford University Press, USA, 1971), 92–93.

[3]Ibid., 93.

[4]Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 26.

[5]Mitchell, The Philosophy of Religion, 93.




[9]McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity Vol. 1, 218–219; Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 17–18.

[10]Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 21.

[11]Mitchell, The Philosophy of Religion, 93.

[12]Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil.

[13]Chad Meister, Introducing Philosophy of Religion (Routledge, 2009), 134.

[14]Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (IVP Academic, 2011), 631.

What’s the problem? — The Problem of Evil (Part 1)

The following series of posts under the title “The Problem of Evil” are an adaption of a paper I wrote in 2012. I made a number of changes in an effort to make the content clearer and more ‘blog-friendly.’ I want to thank my wife and my friend Gary Fields for their help along those lines.


file6461281015948THE PROBLEM OF EVIL — What’s the problem?
The God of the Bible has revealed to us many of His varied and wonderful attributes through Scripture. We learn He is eternal, good, wise, just, and powerful (just to name a few). He possesses these qualities in their infinite forms, and they are eternally inseparable from His essence. He is not, for example, simply knowledgeable, He is omniscient—His knowledge is the epitome of knowledge. His goodness, the epitome of goodness. Of course, this is perfectly acceptable when our eyes are glued to the pages of our favorite systematic theology, but when we gaze at the world around us, we may encounter a problem. If these things are true about God, shouldn’t our world be different—better? If God is loving and powerful, why does He allow the vast amounts of evil we see around us? This problem—“the problem of evil”—is classically stated by David Hume. “Is [God] willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[1] The problem of evil is a common defeater argument used by atheists to disprove or discredit Christianity. Understanding the argument (in its various forms) is an invaluable tool in apologetics.

Hume’s formulation of the problem could be categorized as the logical problem of evil. Since Hume, there have been many other atheist philosophers who have levied variations of this argument against the existence of God. In addition to the logical problem of evil there is the probabilistic problem of evil (or the “evidential problem”), which has arisen more recently, and is the predominant form of the problem used today.[2] Over the coming weeks I want to deal with the problem of evil (in its two major forms) and then work toward a biblical theodicy (that is, a theory of the actual truths about God and the world which reconcile His power and goodness to the evil we experience).

Before continuing any further, it will be helpful to define terms. First, while variations of the problem of evil can apply to all sorts of theistic belief systems (Judaism, Islam, etc.), here, we will deal with the problem from a distinctly Christian perspective. All of God’s attributes, traditionally understood within orthodox Christianity, will be presupposed. For example, there will be no need to examine defenses that deny God’s omniscience because these defenses disqualify themselves by virtue of contradicting the clear teachings of Scripture.

Another term that should be defined is evil. Here, evil will be used in a broad sense. It can mean human evil (understood to mean the negative effects of a choice of a free-agent), or natural evil (evils that exist outside of man’s power, such as natural disasters and sickness).[3] Some may point out that evil is sometimes understood in terms of privation. That is, evil does not have substance of its own, but is the lack of something good.[4] This may be true, but the problem of evil still stands. How can God, who is intrinsically good, allow the world to lack any goodness? Defining evil in terms of privation does not solve the problem of evil.

We should also clarify what we mean by problem. As was mentioned before, the problem of evil is typically divided into two categories; first, there is the logical problem of evil, and second, there is the probabilistic problem of evil (more commonly known as the “evidential problem”). The first attempts to prove that the biblical God and the existence of evil are logically incompatible. The second does not claim a logical problem per se, but claims that given the amount of evil observable in the world, the existence of God is highly improbable.

Finally, we should clarify the difference between what is considered a defense with regard to the problem of evil, and what is called a theodicy. While every theodicy is a defense, not every defense is a theodicy. A defense merely attempts to find a state of affairs that could possibly be; while a theodicy attempts to reveal the state of affairs that actually is, both, of course, aiming to solve the problem.[5] We will examine some popular attempts at theodicy in a future post.

To conclude, we will also discuss the problem from a pastoral perspective, and then work toward a biblical theodicy. Afterword, if the time can be found, I would like to turn the tables on the skeptic and deal with what could be called the “atheist’s problem of evil.”

I hope you will stick with me over the coming weeks as we explore this important topic. If you would like email updates of this blog you can subscribe for free on the upper right side of this page.



[1]David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Merchant Books, 2009), 81.

[2]Bruce A. Little, God, Why This Evil? (Hamilton Books, 2010), 5–6.

[3]Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 30.

[4]Saint Augustine, Confessions (Simon & Brown, 2012), 113; Little, God, Why This Evil?, 83.

[5]Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 27–28.