Is Evil a Logical Defeater for God’s Existence?

Philosophers have presented numerous arguments throughout history in attempts to either prove or disprove God’s existence.1 A common challenge to God’s existence is the perpetual problem of evil. But does the existence of evil in the world logically defeat God’s existence? I hope this brief blog post will help you to discuss the argument and reason through the issue.

defeater in logic is a belief which, if proved to be true, would logically imply that another belief is false. Let’s look at a common attempt to use the existence of evil as a possible defeater for God’s existence.

Chain of Reasoning
If the traditional God of theism exists, then:

1. God is omnipotent (all-powerful).
2. God is omnibenevolent (wholly good).
3. God is omniscient (all-knowing).

But:
4. If a divine being is omnipotent, it can do anything.  
5. If a divine being is omnibenevolent, it always eliminates as much evil as possible.
6. If a divine being is omniscient, it knows how to eliminate evil.

Yet, evil conspicuously exists.

Deductive Argument from Evil against God Explained
An argument consists of a central claim (the conclusion) and premises (support for the conclusion in the form of evidence, facts, or reasons). The chain of reasoning above reflects the following argument. 

Premise #1: The traditional theistic God possesses the “omnis” (all power, all goodness, all knowledge). 
Premise #2: An all-powerful God would be able to remove evil. 
Premise #3: An all-good God would want to remove evil. 
Premise #4: An all-knowing God would know how to remove evil. 
Conclusion: Therefore, God and evil cannot coexist and since evil does exist then God cannot exist.

This reasoning concludes that evil is a defeater for belief in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God. It is known as the deductive argument from evil because, if the reasoning is valid (the conclusion follows inferentially from the premises) and all the premises are true, then the conclusion is certainly true.

Analyzing the Argument
The conclusion follows inferentially from the premises; therefore, the reasoning of the argument seems to be logically correct. But the truth of premises #2 and #3, respectively, is clearly debatable. Concerning premise #2, God may not be able to remove evil without removing the free agency granted to angels and human beings. Concerning premise #3, God may not want to remove evil, at least not right away, for it may serve a greater purpose. That is, evil may be the result of granting creatures free agency and/or evil may allow creatures to grow in moral character.

Thus, it follows that the deductive argument from evil against God logically fails. It is not certainly true that the existence of evil disproves God’s existence.

Theodicy as an Explanation for Evil
A theodicy is an attempt to justify or vindicate God in the face of evil. Here’s the basic argument that has come from various theists (Jews, Christians, Muslims) for how evil can be compatible with God:

Premise #1: God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient.
Premise #2: God created a world that now contains evil and he had a good reason for doing so (for purposes of a greater good).
Conclusion: Therefore, the world contains evil, but evil is consistent with God’s unlimited power, goodness, and knowledge.

Christian philosophers have proposed different theodicies, as illustrated by the following quotes, that show the failure of the deductive argument from evil against God.

Greater Good: St. Augustine & Richard Swinburne

“For the Almighty God, who, as even the heathen acknowledge, has supreme power over all things, being Himself supremely good, would never permit the existence of anything evil among His works, if He were not so omnipotent and good that He can bring good even out of evil.” 2

“The basic solution is that all the evils we find around us are logically necessary conditions of greater goods, that is to say that greater good couldn’t come about without the evil or at any rate the natural possibility of evil.”3

Free Will Defense: Alvin Plantinga
“To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He [God] must create creatures capable of moral evil.”4

Even some skeptical or atheistic philosophers recognize the conclusion that the deductive argument from evil against God fails.

Atheist William Rowe notes: “Some philosophers have contended that the existence of evil is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God. No one, I think, has succeeded in establishing such an extravagant claim . . .”5

And skeptic Paul Draper concurs: “I do not see how it is possible to construct a convincing logical argument from evil against theism.”6

Takeaway
While evil is a perplexing and troubling reality, the actual existence of evil does not serve as a logical disproof of the God of traditional theism. For God may have a good reason for allowing evil to exist. And Scripture reveals that God will eliminate all evil, pain, and suffering for his people in the eschatological future (Revelation 21:4).

Reflections: Your Turn 
Have you ever struggled with the question of God’s relationship to evil? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment.

Resources

Endnotes

  1. For a discussion of the traditional arguments for the existence of God, see my article How to Respond to the Challenge That God Is Hidden.
  2. St. Augustine, The Enchiridion, ch. 11, Logos Virtual Library, trans. J. F. Shaw.
  3. Richard Swinburne, quoted in “The Problem of Evil,” in Great Thinkers on Great Questions, ed. Roy Abraham Varghese (Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2009), 191.
  4. Alvin C. Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 30.
  5. Richard Rowe, William L. Rowe, “IX. The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16 (October 1979): 335, n. 1.
  6. Paul Draper, “The Argument from Evil,” in Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, ed. Paul Copan and Chad Meister (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008), 146.

  One thought on “Is Evil a Logical Defeater for God’s Existence?

  1. Robert Weil
    November 6, 2021 at 6:54 am

    It can be extremely difficult at time to believe that all things are working together for my good. For example, if I were a victim of the Holocaust, or even a witness to it, it would challenge my faith, as it did to Billy Graham’s then-partner, Charles Templeton and many others. I have found it necessary to carefully frame what is meant by “good”. I think we have to look at it from the perspective of the author of good, who is God. He sees good from an eternal perspective, not from our timebound, “how am I doing today?” perspective. My eternal good could well be shaped by temporal evils, working together with the Spirit living in me, as it was for virtually every Biblical hero. Easy to say, hard to do, but with God all things are possible.

    • November 6, 2021 at 8:51 am

      Robert:

      St. Augustine called suffering a “severe mercy.”

      Severe because it is painful. Mercy because it keeps us tethered to God.

      The key apologetics point in my article above is that God has a reason for evil, pain, and suffering and thus the greater good theodicy makes the deductive argument from evil against God a failure.

      Peace.

      Ken Samples

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