Transcript: Podcast 15 - The Problem of Evil

In this episode I want to address the Problem of Evil, a very common argument that most of us are probably familiar with. For book reviews, I’ll be looking at Jesus Under Fire by J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins. For the audience question today, a listener asks why the arguments for God’s existence are so complicated. Before any of that, however, let’s take a brief look at the news,


Many of you have most likely heard about the new documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which was released last week. The movie stars comedian Ben Stein, as he pursues interviews with leading proponents and critics of the theory of Intelligent Design. The main thesis of the movie is that many individuals in academia are persecuting advocates of Intelligent Design, using bully tactics to ensure that their views don’t get a fair hearing. The vicious opposition to Intelligent Design theory, however, is based on a variety of philosophical misunderstandings and errors in thinking, together with a good dose of paranoia.

To bring listeners up to speed, Intelligent Design is the theory that some aspects of biological organisms are best explained with reference to an intelligent cause. The movement gained some steam when Michael Behe released his book, Darwin’s Black Box, now just over ten years ago. The theory has come under intense criticism from many scientists and philosophers who think that the theory is simply a new version of creationism.

In addition to discussing the persecution of Intelligent Design advocates, Expelled explores the weaknesses of Darwinian evolution, arguments that support Intelligent Design, and the link between evolution and Nazism. I thought the film had varying success but is ultimately worth seeing. Check out the blog at for a detailed review of Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.

N.T. Wright is the Bishop of Durham and one of the most prominent scholars of the New Testament writing today. He has written a slew of books, including his recent massive tome defending the resurrection, The Resurrection of the Son of God. In addition to his more scholarly efforts, Wright has recently released some popular-level books, including Simply Christian and Suprised by Hope. In Suprised By Hope Wright talks about the traditional conception of heaven and how many Christians are mistaken about the Biblical view. Wright was recently interviewed by TIME magazine, where he shared his view on the nature of heaven.

An understanding of the true Biblical teachings on the afterlife are very important, particularly because Christianity is often criticized about its view of the afterlife. Most of these criticisms are based on common misunderstandings of doctrines that are held by Christians and non-Christians alike.

Wright points out that, first of all, the Christian view of heaven is not a spiritual, ethereal place, but rather a very physical place where we will have our bodies. Second, the afterlife really involves the new heaven and the new earth being joined together, where we will take part in the new creation. We will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf, which Wright points out is an idea that goes back to Genesis, where Adam and Eve tended the garden and looked after the animals.

So where do the mistaken ideas about floating around in a heavenly abode come from? Wright argues that Greek-speaking Christians influenced by Plato were convinced that the physical was bad, and that the spiritual was ideal. In actuality, the New Testament is deeply Jewish, and reflects the idea that the physical world is a good thing. After all, God declared the world ‘very good’ when it was first created. 1

An Iranian director named Nader Talebzadeh is making a film about the life of Jesus Christ from the perspective of the Muslim faith. Titled Jesus: The Spirit of God, this film portrays Christ not as the unique son of God, but as a prophet and messenger of God who was looking forward to the prophet Muhammed. Many people might be surprised to know that the the Muslim faith regards Jesus very highly. Nevertheless, the Koran denies the resurrection of Jesus, and even denies the crucifixion, since God would not allow one of his greatest prophets to suffer such a disgraceful fate. 2

However, it is on just these points that the historical evidence for Jesus Christ is strongest. For a historical defense of the resurrection, check out podcast episode 12. Even stronger is the case for the crucifixion of Christ. Indeed, the crucifixion is one of the most confident facts we can know about history. Not only does it receive unanimous confirmation from all the different ancient documents that happened to be compiled into the Bible, references to Christ’s crucifixion is found in reliable historical sources. This includes the Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus. The fact that so many independent accounts affirm the crucifixion of Jesus, and furthermore, when you consider that the crucifixion would have been an embarrassing fact for the authors of the Gospels, the fact of his death on a cross is virtually certain.

In the film, Jesus ascends to heaven before he is crucified, and Judas is transformed to look like Christ and then is crucified in his place. In addition to being historically unverifiable and frankly deceptive, this view is based on the extremely late sources of the Koran and the Gospel of Barnabas. Despite the dubious historical scholarship, viewing this film might give a perspective on the worldview of the Islamic faith concerning the life of Jesus Christ.

In more personal news, I have recently been expanding my podcast scope by appearing on a few other notable podcasts as a guest. First, I have recently become a member of the Apologia podcast and blog discussion group, which can be found at This podcast, hosted by Zachary Moore of the Evolution 101 podcast, features a round table discussion between atheists and theists to find points of contention and points of agreement between the two positions. I have participated in three shows so far- the first one on the arguments for God’s existence, the second one on arguments against God’s existence, and the third on the problem of evil. If you are interested, the Apologia podcast can also be subscribed to via ITunes.

The second podcast I’ve appeared on was the Reason Driven podcast, hosted by Danny Schade and Mikyle Lockwood. This podcast is based off of a book written by Robert Price, called The Reason Driven Life. This book is a response to the mega-seller The Purpose Driven Life by Pastor Rick Warren. I was invited to join the discussion on Chapter 21 of the book. However, I was the first Christian so far to be interviewed on the show, so we ended up discussing a variety of topics, including evangelism, the doctrine of hell, and arguments for God’s existence. Check out their podcast at, or subscribe through ITunes.

Main Feature: The Problem of Evil

Although I have covered many of the major arguments for God’s existence and looked at several arguments from the other side, I haven’t yet covered the Problem of Evil. This may be surprising, since the Problem of Evil is commonly regarded to be the most powerful philosophical objection to Christianity. I agree with this outlook – I think that the Problem of Evil is the best argument for atheism and the strongest argument against Christianity around. To be honest, I have not covered this topic yet simply because of the complexity and difficulty involved. I don’t think that a simple answer to the Problem of Evil is possible, let alone desirable, so you will have to bear with me for this somewhat lengthy podcast. Nevertheless, given the importance of this discussion for the thinking Christian, a solid familiarity with this argument is essential.

What then, is the Problem of Evil? It has had many formulations. A popular way to formulate the argument follows the form given by the ancient philosopher Epicurus, and it goes like this;

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

According to this formulation, a perfectly good, all-powerful God should be both willing and able to prevent evil. He should be willing because He is good, and as a good God He should wish to eliminate evil as far as possible. He should be able to prevent evil because He is all-powerful, and thus can do anything. So why is there evil in the world?

This version of the argument is often referred to as the logical problem of evil. According to this formulation, the existence of evil and the existence of God are literally incompatible, so that if one exists it is impossible for the other to exist. Clearly, this type of logical proof would require quite a bit of support. After all, if the theist can show that it is at least possible for evil and God to exist at the same time, then the argument is shown to be false.

And, in fact, I think that this is rather easily done. Notice that in the Epicurean formulation, it claims that God would be malevolent if He were able to prevent some evil, but unwilling to do so. Yet, we all recognize in our daily lives that evil is sometimes appropriate. For example, disciplining a child causes that child some suffering. But it would be foolish to stop punishing our children in any way, because then even worse consequences would follow. And we frequently inflict evil and suffering upon criminals by detaining them in prisons, and I think very few of us would argue that we should simply let all criminals go.

It may be countered that God, unlike us mere humans, is not limited in any way and so should not be forced to deal with such compromises. He could simply make children and criminals behave, so that there is no problem.

If this line is taken, however, then it brings to the forefront the mainstay of the Christian response to the Problem of Evil – the free will defense. According to the free will defense, much or all of the evil in the world is the result of the free choices of creatures and not directly related to God’s will. God makes creatures with free will, and those creatures use the free will to do evil things. For example, Jones may freely decide to murder Smith. God does not want creatures to misuse their freedom in this way. Nevertheless, God cannot logically do anything about this problem. Certainly, He could interfere by taking away the free will of Jones. However, it is impossible for God to make a free creature freely do something. God knows that Jones will decide to misuse his freedom and murder Jones, but God can do nothing about it unless He takes away his free will.

It is important to note that this does not in any way take away from God’s power. He could simply take away Jones’ free will. But if God desires to give Jones free will, then He cannot make Jones do something contrary to his free will.

As a brief aside, it should be noted that there are many different definitions of the term free will, and the free will defense only refers to a particular type. A distinction must be made between compatibilist free will and libertarian free will. Before describing these terms, we must be clear on what determinism is.

Determinism is the view that every event is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. A useful analogy at this point may be a pool table. Pool balls move according to known rules of physics. The 8-ball being knocked in the corner pocket may be a chain reaction involving the strike of the pool stick hitting the cue ball, which bounces into the side of the table, hits the 4 ball, which then nudges the 8 ball into the pocket. This is clearly a deterministic chain of events. The idea of determinism merely extends this concept further. Why did the pool stick strike the cue ball? This is because a human being moved his arms in such a way that the strike was achieved. Why did he move his hands this way? Because certain neurological impulses forced his muscles to move in the intended way. Why where those neurological impulses present? Because the player wanted to win the game by knocking in the 8-Ball. As you go further and further up the chain, the determinist still sees only cause and effect. Notice that in this case, the pool player inevitably hit the cue ball in the way that he did. Given all of the situations and occurrences leading up to that moment, the pool player was causally determined to have certain neurological impulses that led inevitably to the 8-ball being knocked into the corner pocket.

Many people who believe that determinism is true believe that free will does not actually exist. According to such theorists, free will is at best a sort of illusion. The pool player may think that he has a choice to hit the cue ball or to refrain from hitting it, but in actual fact he has no such choice.

Among those who believe that free will exists, the two major positions split based on whether or not they accept determinism. For compatibilists, determinism does not imply that humans have no free will. How can this be? If every event is causally determined by previous occurrences, how can there be any free will?

Returning to the pool analogy, our imagined pool player clearly desired to hit the cue ball. His hitting the cue ball was not the result of some neurological disease or external restraint forcing him to hit the ball. But we may imagine other situations where the pool player only strikes the cue ball because of some undue influence. For instance, another person may be holding a gun up to his head and forcing him to strike the cue ball. Under such conditions, the player will almost certainly strike the ball, but his doing so will not be in accord with his internal desires. In this case, he does not have freedom with respect to hitting the cue ball. Thus, freedom according to compabibilism is the hypothetical ability to act or to choose between alternatives (this is sometimes referred to as the “ability condition”).

The other major type of free will, libertarian freedom, requires a denial of the truth of determinism. According to the libertarian theory, more than a hypothetical ability to act is required for true freedom. A categorical ability to act is required, which implies that if an agent freely does A, he could have chosen to refrain from doing A, or could have done B, without any conditions whatsoever being different. To return to the analogy, the pool player would have this sort of freedom only if he literally had the ability to choose whether or not to strike the cue ball.

This distinction being made, it seems that the free will defense depends upon the libertarian conception of free will. If compatibilism were true, it seems that God would easily be able to create a perfect or near-perfect world even given the presence of free will, for he would simply have to ensure that certain conditions obtained, and the predictable “free will” choices of agents would follow inescapably. If libertarian free will is the correct account of the type of freedom people have, then God could not ensure that a free person does something merely by changing the circumstances. The free will choice is literally up to the person.

Returning to the discussion of the Problem of Evil, God may consider the good of libertarian free will to be more important than the existence of suffering and evil that can follow from a misuse of such freedom. I think this argument is rather intuitive, because most people recognize the importance of free will and would not gladly give it up. Indeed, many people are willing to die and suffer for their freedom. The upshot of this discussion is that libertarian free will may be a greater good that justifies the negative consequences of the evil that result from it.

From an empirical standpoint, it is clear that a great deal of the evil and suffering in this world are the result of free choices. Murder, rape, thievery, abuse, vandalization, and a host of other evils are the direct result of evil free choices. Moreover, a great deal of suffering can be attributed to the failure to act. For example, witness the fact that we currently have more than enough food on the planet to happily feed everyone, but, partly due to human inaction, millions go hungry. If every human used their free will appropriately, a vast amount of the evil in the world would disappear.

In any case, the point of this discussion is that the Epicurean premise that God would prevent evil if He were able is not necessarily true. Since preventing the evil would require doing away with free will, it is not at all clear that this is desirable from man’s standpoint, let alone God’s standpoint. It seems that the logical problem of evil has been solved.

At this point, the critic may respond that the free will defense only deals with moral evil and it has nothing to do with natural evil. This is an important distinction that is highly relevant in discussions of the Problem of Evil. Moral evil is evil that is related to intentional free will choices, while natural evil basically encompasses all other types. Earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and many types of diseases are examples of natural evil. Humans are clearly not responsible for natural evil, so it appears that the free will defense is limited in scope.

The renowned Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga has rather famously argued that the free will defense can be extended so that it covers natural evil as well. Any given natural evil, say, a volcanic eruption, could be attributed to the free will choices of angelic beings. Although this suggestion sounds rather silly, it is notoriously hard to disprove. Such a hypothesis, without any sort of corroborating evidence, may not be plausible, but it does serve to undermine the logical problem of evil. Remember, in order to refute the logical argument from evil, all you have to do is show that it is possible for God and evil to coexist.

The second version of the problem of evil is oftentimes called the ‘evidential problem of evil.’ Although the conclusion of this argument is less powerful, I still think that this version is a much better critique of Christian belief. The logical problem of evil is, I think, vulnerable to an easy disproof by the free will defense, as just discussed. However, the evidential problem of evil asserts the the amount and the severity of evil in the world is unlikely, given the existence of the Christian God. Unfortunately for the Christian, this seems to be an entirely reasonable intuition. Even most Christians are at a loss to understand why God, who is believed to be all-loving and all-powerful, can and does permit horrific evils in the world.

Daniel Howard-Snyder notes that evidential problems of evil can take two forms. 3 Either they may simply lack a premise which states that God and the existence of evil are logically incompatible, or they cite a type of evil that does not necessarily exist. A simple version of the evidential argument, along the lines of the second approach, can be formulated like this:

1.) If God exists, gratuitous suffering would not exist.
2.) Gratuitous suffering exists.
3.) Therefore, God does not exist.

Gratuitous means without any purpose or justification. Thus, it is by no means undeniable that such evil exists in the world, making this an evidential problem from evil. Should we believe premise 1? I think that, as long as we define gratuitous evil correctly, then we should accept premise 1. After all, if God is truly all-loving and all-powerful, then it is hard to see why he would allow or create evil and suffering that literally served no purpose.

If we accept the first premise, then we must deny the second premise to overtake the argument. Although it appears simple at first, the second premise is notoriously difficult to prove. It is simply impossible for us to calculate or even reasonably predict the long-term effects of things that happen in the world. Seemingly insignificant events could potentially have a huge impact in later events.

Yet, even though it is impossible to actually prove premise 2, I still think the Christian theist must bear some burden of proof to show that it is at least somewhat plausible that none of the evil that exists is truly gratuitous. On the face of it, the existence of gratuitous evil is very probable, just given the sheer amount of evil. What are the odds that every evil thing that occurs has a good reason? This is why Christians must develop a good theodicy. A theodicy is simply an attempt to offer the reasons God may have for permitting the evil in the world.

Given the fact that evil is a complex problem, it seems reasonable to me that any solution will also be complex. I advocate a broad theodicy that notes a variety of possible reasons for any particular evil. In this podcast, I will mention 6 different factors that I think can plausibly account for the evil in the world. However, all of them depend in some way upon the free will defense, so I would like to take this time to answer several criticisms and then explain the broad scope that the free will defense provides.

One important argument against the free will defense is made by the critic who claims that we don’t have libertarian free will. This is a legitimate move to make, because the existence and nature of free will are contentious issues in philosophy. Even though most people may take the existence of libertarian free will for granted, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that we have it. However, a full blown defense of libertarian freedom is beyond the scope of this podcast, and it is an issue which I will take up later.

Another common critique of the free will defense is that God could still intervene to ensure no suffering is caused by the free will of creatures. For example, suppose that Jones decides that he wants to kill Smith. At the moment in which Jones pulls the trigger, God could do a number of things to save Smith. He could make the bullets evaporate, or he could ensure that the gun does not fire, or he could turn the gun into marshmallow paste. Jones’s free will is not violated, he is simply prevented from carrying out his evil intentions.

Due to these types of objections, I never argue that free will per se is responsible for a great deal of evil in the world – I prefer to say that significant free will is the culprit. Significant free will simply means that an agent can choose to perform actions that will have significant consequences, good or bad. This ability to make significant choices can be extremely damaging- as when an angry Jones decides to kill Smith. However, God cannot take away the consequences of Jones’s actions without taking away his significant free will.

Consider this- a man locked in a padded room has free will. He can kick the walls, do push ups, or sing showtunes. But, clearly, the significance of the free will possessed by such an individual is meagre. Few people would be willing to die for such a limited, meaningless freedom. It is not freedom per se that we find valuable, but significant free will. Unfortunately, the more significant our free will, the more possibility we have to do harm to ourselves and others.

Finally, I would like to mention that the free will defense actually provides a broader scope than it may initially appear. Since free will has to do with the moral choices of humans, it is common to believe that the free will defense only addresses the existence of moral evil. However, I don’t think that is the case, for the following reason.

If we admit that we have significant libertarian free will, and we admit that even God cannot make us do things without violating our free will, then God must use other means rather than brute force in order to accomplish His goals. To simplify this greatly, suppose that God has two primary goals;

1.) Create the best possible world.
2.) Create agents with significant libertarian free will.

Unfortunately, these two goals tend to conflict with each other because humans have a pesky habit of using their free will to do evil. Clearly, on this account God wants to make the world as good as possible while still allowing free actions from His creatures. How is He to accomplish this?

One way, perhaps the only way, to accomplish this goal is to create the situations so that humans make the most virtuous decisions they would make in any circumstance. Consider again our good friend Jones, who is quite upset at Smith. Suppose there are two possible worlds – in World 1, Jones is not stalled and goes through with his plan to kill Smith. In World 2, a tornado touches down and destroys the home of Jones’s mother, also injuring her severely in the process. In World 2, Jones is preoccupied with what happened to his mother and so forgets about the rage that he had toward Smith. In this world, Jones freely decides not to murder Smith.

In this case, we see that a natural evil- in this case, a tornado- was instrumental for avoiding a moral evil. This brief analysis demonstrates that the free will defense can have a much broader scope than is traditionally conceived.

Nevertheless, given the great amount of suffering in the world, I do not believe that just the existence of free will can successfully answer the problem. What are some other reasons God may have for permitting evil?

One of the most important considerations is that God is more concerned with people’s salvation than with their happiness on Earth. According to the Christian, in order to be saved we must ask for God’s forgiveness and believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. If Christianity is true, then it is clearly more important that people believe in and love God than it is that they are happy for the short life they live out on this planet. We clearly have to add a third goal to God’s list;

3.) Ensure that everyone is saved.

This goal conflicts with goals 1 and 2 to a certain degree, such that God cannot perfectly actualize all three.

At first blush it may seem counterintuitive to say that suffering could cause some individuals to gain faith in God, particularly considering that the Problem of Evil is commonly thought to be the best argument against the existence of God. But philosophical objections to God’s existence are rarely the cause of disbelief, just like arguments for God’s existence are rarely the true cause of belief. I would argue that evil and suffering are actually one of the most important elements that lead humans to belief in God. Mostly, this is an issue of motivation.

If the world contained no evil and humans experienced only pleasure, they would have little reason to search for God. Our needs and desires would be completely satisfied, and we would not have a need to search for a deeper meaning to life. Suffering brings life into perspective, allowing us to recognize our frailty and our need for deliverance from our flaws. So it is somewhat reasonable to suppose that some suffering and evil may lead some people to God.

In fact, these speculations have been confirmed to a certain degree by empirical studies. Moreland and Craig cite studies from Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World:

It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977 the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30-75 million Christians by 1990. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.

El Salvador
The 12-year civil war, earthquakes, and the collapse of the price of coffee, the nation’s main export, impoverished the nation. Over 80% live in dire poverty. An astonishing spiritual harvest has been gathered from all strata of society in the midst of the hate and bitterness of war. In 1960 evangelicals were 2.3% of the population, but today are around 20%.

Ethiopia is in a state of shock. Her population struggles with the trauma of millions of deaths through repression, famine, and war. Two great waves of violent persecution refined and purified the Church, but there were many martyrs. There have been millions coming to Christ. Protestants were fewer than .8% of the population in 1960, but by 1990 this may have become 13% of the population. 4

Thus, the altogether reasonable supposition that suffering can lead people to belief in God is confirmed by these studies, and is therefore very plausible.

As further confirmation, a Pew survey released last October found a strong correlation between religiosity and wealth. 5 Poorer nations tend to be far more religious than wealthy nations, with the United States being a major exception, though still weakly following the trend. This just underscores the point that suffering tends to increase receptiveness for belief in God and religion in general.

Next to belief in and love of God, the second most important commandment, according to Jesus Christ, is that we love our neighbors as ourselves. God is very concerned with our character, and we should be too. Most people intuitively recognize that building strong character is one of the most important things in life, and our actions demonstrate that we believe suffering is sometimes justified to achieve that end.

Take, for example, a parent who disciplines or spanks a child. Responsible parents discipline children who do wrong things in order to instill good behavior and good values.

Indeed, in light of eternal life, good character becomes even more important – vastly outstripping the importance of temporary happiness. If we live forever, then our character will have an impact on our lives eternally. Therefore, we could add to God’s list of goals number 4,

4.) Ensure that creatures develop the best possible character.

Once again, this goal will conflict with the other 3 to a certain degree.

Why should we think that suffering develops character? Two things should be mentioned here; first, suffering and evil allow the possibility of higher order goods, and second, suffering per se is an important factor in the development of good character.

To address the first issue, what do I mean by higher order goods? I would classify first order goods and first order evils as simple pleasures and pains. Higher order goods and higher order evils are those that have to do with character and attitudes. Examples of a higher order evil would be spite, hatred, and self-centeredness, while examples of higher order goods include compassion, courage, love, and so on. Importantly, some higher order goods require suffering in order to exist. For example, if nobody ever experienced suffering, then it would be impossible to have compassion, which is defined as pity or concern for the suffering of others. However, we all recognize that compassion is a very good thing.

As for the second point, which claims that suffering is an important factor in the development of good character, I think that this claim is supported by our general intuitions. We refer to children or even adults who always get their way as spoiled- and these persons frequently exhibit undesirable personality traits.

A confirmation of the plausibility of this suggestion can be found in many atheistic presentations of the Problem of Evil. It is often claimed that the evil in this world is not fairly distributed, and, even further, that the wicked tend to be more prosperous than the moral. However, it obviously makes little sense to suppose that evil literally seeks out “moral” persons and leaves the unscrupulous relatively unscathed. If this were the case, it would be evidence for a deliberately malevolent Creator. In actuality, it makes much more sense to suppose that wealth and comfort are actually causes of the wickedness of those persons. Ironically, then, this argument actually supports the contention that an easy life can be a cause of moral corruption. This implies that God would have motivation to permit hardship and suffering in order to allow for improved moral character.

One objection to this line of reasoning is that God could use other means to steer us in the direction of moral behavior. I grant this response, and I admit that there are many ways in which God can influence the development of our moral character. However, the existence of other techniques does not necessarily eliminate the need for this technique to produce optimum results. It is plausibly the case that a variety of means used together must be used for our greatest benefit.

Richard Swinburne, an Oxford philosopher, offers an interesting theodicy in his book The Existence of God , and, in a more detailed presentation, Providence and the Problem of Evil. He argues that the existence of a naturally operating universe, with predictable and regular laws, allows humans the opportunity to learn about the world. 6 If the universe was completely unrestrained by predictable laws, then humans could not learn about how to cause certain outcomes. For an example, consider a hot stove. A stove is hot simply because the matter which makes up the stove is behaving in predictable ways. If we touch the stove, we will burn ourselves. Again, this effect is due, at least in part, to the physical make-up of our bodies. It simply is the case that you will burn yourself if you touch a hot stove. Since it regularly happens, we learn this truth and, with exception to the masochists among us, we don’t touch hot stoves.

Here’s another example. The evidence shows that having unprotected sex with as many partners as possible is dangerous. Most of us know that promiscuous, unprotected sex is dangerous. How do we know this? There are several ways;

First, we may simply have a great deal of evidence from third-hand sources that unprotected sex is dangerous. Perhaps we have a friend who knows a friend that contracted an STD from unprotected sex. Or, perhaps we have heard statistics reported on the news, warning us of the dangers of unprotected sex. These types of evidence may or may not convince us to avoid sexual promiscuity, but for many people they probably do curtail such behavior. Second, we may have second-hand evidence, perhaps we know a good friend who contracted an STD. This is likely to be much more powerful and is more likely to cause changed behavior. Finally, we may have first hand experience. Perhaps we actually contracted an STD as a result of unprotected sex. Clearly, first hand experience is extraordinarily powerful and is by far the most likely to produce changed behavior. Likewise in the case of the hot stove- once we actually touch a hot stove and become familiar with the pain it causes, we are much, much less likely to touch a hot stove in the future.

The upshot of this discussion is that the causes that make things happen in the world we live in, including the causes that make bad things happen, greatly increase our knowledge of the world.

Moreover, our knowledge of consequence can be much surer if there are multiple cases. Our knowledge of the effects of alcohol become more obvious the more instances we have in which our own excessive drinking causes drunkenness (and a hangover). And the more people we know or have heard about who have contracted a disease because of unprotected sex, the surer our knowledge that unprotected sex is potentially dangerous.

Knowledge gained by such experience is good for several reasons. First of all, it allows us to mature as individuals as we learn more and more about the world around us. Secondly, it allows us to learn about the consequences of our actions, so our choices to harm or help other people can be more effective. If the universe obeyed no rational laws, it would be impossible for us to know how to help someone in need. Thirdly, related to this point, the knowledge we gain from the world as a result of predictable consequences allows us to exercise our significant free will in important ways.

Therefore, we should add to the list of God’s goals the following,

5.) Ensure that creatures are able to grow in their understanding of the world and interact in responsible ways.

A powerful response to this theodicy is that God could use other means to warn us of the consequences of our actions. For example, He could simply verbally warn us of impending disasters. However, this would entail God making His existence virtually undeniable, which, as I explain in episode 5 of this podcast, could have seriously negative consequences.

We have now considered several different important theodicies, but we have yet to touch upon the subject of deserved suffering. The fact of the matter is, human persons, including ourselves, frequently deserve punishment for our wrongdoing. Non-Christians and Christians alike should be able to admit that people often commit terribly immoral acts, and that they are therefore susceptible to just punishment. A great deal of the evil and suffering that takes place in this world is plausibly deserved.

As a disclaimer, I don’t mean to promote the dubious idea that all the wicked people suffer and all of the good people prosper. Indeed, the opposite is frequently the case. Just punishment is only one possible contributing factor amongst a variety of possible reasons God may have for permitting or creating suffering. It is therefore impossible for us to truly distinguish between suffering that is justly deserved and suffering that is experienced for some other reason.

If we are willing to admit that God is just and therefore occasionally punishes people for their wrongdoing, then we must add a sixth goal to God’s list;

6.) Ensure that creatures are punished appropriately for what they deserve.

Contemporary accounts of justice distinguish between 3 main theories. These are retributivist accounts, deterrence-based accounts, and rehabilitation accounts. In my opinion, all three accounts make important contributions to our theory of justice, though I believe that retributivist theories are the most foundational, a claim which I shall defend shortly. In any case, I will try to show that suffering and evil can be of much use in any of the three primary theories of justice.

Rehabilitation theories see the purpose of punishment as reform of the criminal. According to this theory, prison systems are really primarily interested in reforming the criminals it houses so that these individuals are fit for interaction in regular society.

Deterrence theories argue that punishment is meant to deter crime. It may do this in several ways- one obvious way that a prison system deters crime is that it takes those in society who have proven themselves likely to commit a crime and prevents them from performing the crime. Another way that punishment can deter is that fear of punishment will motivate would-be criminals to refrain from committing the crime. For example, probably the only reason that anybody even thinks about obeying the speed limit is that they are afraid of getting a ticket.

Retributivist theories, unlike either deterrence or rehabilitation accounts, maintain that just punishment is good in itself. Those who have committed a serious wrong simply deserve punishment, and on that basis alone they should be punished. Retributivist theories seem, at first glance, to be rather barbaric and vengeance-oriented when compared to the other two theories, which seem more compassionate. However, some quick reflection reveals that just the opposite is the case.

The advantage of the retributivist theory is that punishment is justified if and only if the person being punished is guilty of the wrongdoing and the degree of punishment must be commensurate with the crime. Deterrence and rehabilitation theories lack these essential properties of proper justice. Take deterrence. Deterrence does not require that the person punished is actually guilty. If everyone thinks that someone is guilty of a crime, then it would be right to punish that person as an example to others, even if his or her innocence were secretly known. Indeed, failing to punish an innocent person who appears guilty undermines the motivation of deterrence- would-be criminals will notice that a person they believe is guilty is going unpunished. Deterrence theories therefore possibly advocate punishing the innocent, which is clearly unacceptable. Also, excessive punishment is consistent with, and possibly encouraged by, deterrence theories. For example, suppose that the police would chop off your foot if they caught you speeding. Surely, this type of excessive punishment would be a strong deterrent towards would-be speeders. But severing someone’s foot for a traffic violation is clearly excessive.

Rehabilitation theories fare no better. One could easily start rehabilitating social deviants before they even committed a crime. On a rehabilitation account, there is nothing inconsistent with punishing the innocent. Furthermore, excessive punishment is also possible on such an account. The types, quantities, and duration of punishments required to reform a person back to social decency may well be much more intense than the punishment they actually deserve.

Retributivist theories face neither of these problems. According to this model, it is always wrong to punish the innocent, and punishment should always be in accord with the wrong committed. Thus, even though retributivist theories seem inhumane on the face of it, some quick reflection reveals it to be much more humane than the other two theories. Note also that vengeance, hatred, and spite may be part of a retributivist motivation, but they are not necessarily so. It is perfectly possible to avoid such undesirable attitudes about punishment. This account merely recognizes that wrong deeds are inherently wrong and inherently deserve punishment, just like good deeds are inherently good and deserve reward.

The upshot of this discussion is this; even if suffering and evil does not itself lead to any other good consequences, God is still justified in permitting or inflicting suffering upon persons who commit morally repugnant acts. Punishment is good in and of itself, and so no further justification is needed.

If we admit this premise, then the punishment theodicy might plausibly explain a great deal of evil and suffering in the world. It is not difficult to find human beings doing things that are clearly wrong.

However, to push the issue further, evil and suffering is also useful for deterrence and rehabilitation. For example, someone may suffer paralyzation from a car accident, partly as punishment for a wrong previously committed, and therefore be deterred from committing certain crimes. Or, suffering experienced following a moral failing may be a significant source of rehabilitation for a wrongdoer. Thus, even if one finds the retributivist theory of punishment difficult to accept, the other theories offer much room for just punishment. Given the amount and the degree of human evil, it seems plausible that this piece of the puzzle alone explains a great deal of the evil and suffering in the world.

So, to recap so far, we have found 6 different goals that God may plausibly have when He wills to create a universe. These goals include;

1.) Create the best possible world.
2.) Create agents with significant libertarian free will.
3.) Ensure that everyone is saved.
4.) Ensure that creatures develop the best possible character.
5.) Ensure that creatures are able to grow in their understanding of the world and interact in responsible ways.
6.) Ensure that creatures are punished appropriately for what they deserve.

It is therefore very simplistic to claim that God would never allow any evil or suffering in the world. Achieving this goal might prevent a slew of other good things from obtaining.

You may remember from earlier in the discussion that natural evil is generally thought to be much harder to explain than moral evil. The advantage of the theodicy I have offered here is that there are multiple solutions to the problem of natural evils, and these separate solutions reinforce one another and are therefore much more effective. For example, consider the occurrence of an earthquake that results in the death of thousands of people. What explanation can there be for this?

There might be several reasons. Some of the victims may have been deserving of punishment. The catastrophe may create the possibility for human cooperation and higher-order goods. The grief some experience at the tragedy may build moral character, and could potentially cause some individuals to turn to faith in God. The tragedy may contribute in some important way to man’s knowledge of suffering and how to avoid it. Or, finally, the catastrophe could have unforeseen consequences in the future that are overwhelmingly good.

Defenders of the Problem of Evil frequently participate in what I call the “divide and conquer strategy.” They consider each separate factor by itself, and claim that it cannot account for a certain type of evil A, and then combat another factor by claiming that it cannot account for evil B. But the question is not whether or not one factor can account for all evil, but whether all factors combined can account for all evil.

It’s important to note that I am not claiming that I can find the reason for any particular instance of suffering. This is why it is dangerous and foolhardy to blame someone of sin because something bad happens to them. Rather, I am claiming that there are many factors that enter the equation, and it is therefore presumptuous to look at any particular evil and claim that, if God existed, He would not permit the evil. Given the complexity of the issues, it is simply impossible to determine that kind of thing.

So are we justified in denying the second premise of the argument from evil, that gratuitous evil exists? It seems to me that we can at least say that we have little reason to think that the premise is true. We simply aren’t in a position to know whether any given evil or suffering in the world is ultimately unjustified.

One more thing should be mentioned here- although we often think of this world as a place of misery and pain, it is also a world of happiness and pleasure. One must not underestimate the pleasures of companionship and love, or even the lesser goods of food, drink, and conversation. Yes, this world contains much evil- but it also contains much good, and that is why I am comfortable believing that it is the product of a loving God.

To conclude, I must be frank and admit that I still find the problem of evil troubling. Even though we are not in a good position to evaluate whether a given evil is justified, I still find examples of evil and suffering in this world so great that I find it truly hard to believe that God would allow it. Because of this, I consider the evidential argument from evil, if not actually sound, to be somewhat persuasive. Nevertheless, I also believe that there are many good arguments for God’s existence, some of which I have defended on this podcast, and so the balance of the evidence strongly favors the conclusion that God exists. After all, it is not surprising that God’s existence seems improbable, relative only to the consideration of the evil in the world. When we consider the broader range of evidence, God’s existence is rendered very likely.

Book Reviews

Jesus Under Fire

Edited by J.P. Moreland and Michael Wilkins, with contributions from eight conservative authors, Jesus Under Fire functions as a response to the liberal interpretation of the life and work of Jesus Christ offered by the Jesus Seminar. The Jesus Seminar is a controversial and relatively well advertised group of approximately 200 scholars who have argued that the historical Jesus did not do or say the majority of things recorded of him in the New Testament. By casting individual votes, the Seminar has attempted to determine the probability of a recorded teaching or deed of Christ being authentic. In Jesus Under Fire, a group of conservative scholars responds to the claims of the Jesus Seminar and tries to establish that the Orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus is not only the most fulfilling, but that it is historically accurate.

The Jesus Seminar makes use of a number of gratuitous and unlikely presuppositions, by which it judges the historical trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Many of these presuppositions are not only in need of justification, but many of them reflect a clear anti-supernaturalistic bias. This book exposes those biases for what they are, and demonstrates that when we take them away, the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are on very fragile ground indeed. In general, I found Jesus Under Fire to be a successful critique of the approach and the findings of the Jesus Seminar. For those people who have been drawn in by their controversial findings and media exposure, this book should provide a useful critique. At times the essays seemed a bit wordy and difficult to read, but in general the chapters were well-written.

My rating for this book is 4 stars out of 5.

Audience Question

I received the following question from Nick,

The evidence and arguments for the existence of God seem to hold up very well. But why do you think we have to go to such trouble to make these arguments; why do we have to try so hard to prove His existence? Wouldn’t He prove it to us? And many of these arguments couldn’t have been made in prior periods, ones with less scientific knowledge, wouldn’t you say?

There are a few things I would like say about this. First of all, while some of the arguments are quite complex and take a lot of effort to defend adequately, I think others are quite simple. In fact, most of the arguments for God’s existence appeal to a very simple intuition that most people have. The real reason that apologetics gets so complicated is because of the extensive criticism directed at the arguments by those who seek to reject them. Unfortunately, this type of complexity is inevitable in ANY area of human discourse – politics, philosophy, ethics, business, and so on. I can’t think of a single area of study where things are simply obvious, everyone accepts the same facts and the same theories, and there are no substantive objections to the prevailing viewpoint. Thus, the complexity of argumentation needed to defend the existence of God, the resurrection of Christ, and so on, is simply a result of the fact that these things have been subjected to endless scrutiny by critics.

Let me return briefly to my point about the simplicity of the case for God’s existence. While thinking about this issue, I often reflect on the fact that most of the powerful arguments for the existence of God are based on extremely obvious facts about the world – indeed, the most obvious facts conceivable. Here they are, in order;

1.) The universe exists.
2.) The universe is capable of supporting intelligent life.
3.) Life exists.
4.) Consciousness exists.

Notice that all four of these premises cannot be rationally denied. These are absolutely indisputable facts of reality that everyone should accept. They also all form the basis for strong arguments.

Fact (1) supports the cosmological argument (or, perhaps, the contingency argument). The fact that anything at all exists simply cries out for an explanation. The philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz remarked that “The first question which must rightfully be asked is why is there something rather than nothing.”

Many versions of the cosmological argument can be formulated whether the universe has existed forever or not, but a particularly strong form of the argument can be advanced if we grant that the universe had a beginning. Remarkably, modern science has overwhelmingly confirmed that the universe did in fact have a beginning, perfectly in line with Jewish and Christian doctrine. This leads to the so-called Kalam Cosmological Argument, which I defend in episode 2 of this podcast, and also on the website.

Fact (2) supports the teleological argument (which is basically just a type of design argument). We now know that it is extraordinarily unlikely that the universe should be life-permitting. This fact cries out for an explanation with even more intuitive appeal than the cosmological argument. I have defended the teleological argument in episode 6 of this podcast.

Fact (3) supports the argument from the origin of life. We also now know that life, even the simplest life, is extraordinarily complex and unlikely to arise by natural causes. Most scientists will admit in their more candid moments that the origin of life is hard to account for naturalistically. Note that this issue is separate from the issue of evolution. Evolution has to do with development of life after it has begun. Whether or not one finds evolutionary theory to be a satisfactory account of the development of life, the origin of life is extraordinarily improbable and points to the existence of a Creator.

Fact (4) supports the argument from mind, which is less known but which I think is quite strong. Basically, the problem of consciousness is irresolvable from the standpoint of materialism. If the universe only constituted matter, then there would be no minds. On the other hand, a personal creator who created the universe could have made both matter and mind. Theism therefore has superior explanatory resources over atheism.

I think these 4 facts, as well as some basic intuitions, provide a compelling case for the existence of God. To this we might also add;

5.) Human beings are obligated to fulfill a moral code.

I don’t include this on the list because, unlike the other 4, this fact is at least theoretically deniable. Nonetheless, it is a fact that probably most people accept and which undergirds the moral argument.

Please note that I am only providing a rough overview of the types of arguments which can be developed with reference to these facts about reality. In order to truly defend them adequately would require an extremely lengthy discussion which we can’t pursue here. But my point is merely that these simple facts about reality provide intuitive reasons to believe that God exist, which many people cite as reasons for belief.

Now, some of these arguments may not have been available in prior times, but actually I think most of them could apply any time. These arguments often receive sophisticated support from modern scientific discoveries (for example, the exquisite fine-tuning of the universe beefs up argument 2), but they are applicable to all time periods. 1-4 have always been the case, have always been undeniable, and in my opinion have always provided support for the existence of God.

As for your last question about this topic, I’m not so sure God could prove that He exists any more than we already have access to without meddling in the affairs of humans to an unacceptable level. This relates to the “Argument from Nonbelief” – which I discussed in podcast 5. But the salient point I’d like to make is this – the evidence for God’s existence is often based on obvious facts, relies on reasonable intuitions, and is quite powerful. As far as natural evidence goes, it is about as strong as we could ever expect it to be.

But finally, although arguments for God’s existence are strong and accessible, they still aren’t the primary method by which people come to believe in God. I think that belief in God is based on the work of the Holy Spirit, which basically convicts us (via personal experience) that Christianity is true. The arguments for God’s existence simply let us know and let others know that we aren’t just nutty – our belief is grounded in reality. We don’t need to try hard to justify God’s existence, God reveals Himself to us. But for those who are skeptical of the work of the Holy Spirit or feel that they have not received Him in any way, the arguments for God’s existence should be enough to convince.


1. Van Biema, David. “Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop.” TIME. 7 Feb. 2008. 19 Aug. 2008 .

2. Fleishman, Jeffrey. “An Iranian’s vision of Jesus’ life stirs debate.” Los Angeles Times. 29 Apr. 2008. 19 Aug. 2008 .

3. Howard-Snyder, Daniel (Edt). The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana Univ Pr, 1996.

4. Craig, William Lane, and J. P. Moreland. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

5. Drum, Kevin. “God and Mammon.” The Washington Monthly. 24 Oct. 2007. 19 Aug. 2008 .

6. Swinburne, Richard. Providence and the Problem of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1998.

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