In days gone by many atheists thought the existence of evil in the world disproved theism. Largely due to the work of philosopher Alvin Plantinga, however, most professional philosophers now concede that the presence of evil in the world does not disprove the existence of God (unfortunately, lay atheists failed to get the memo). As atheist and J.L. Mackie came to admit, “Since this defense is formally [i.e., logically] possible, and its principle involves no real abandonment of our ordinary view of the opposition between good and evil, we can concede that the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another.”
No longer able to use the mere existence of evil as evidence against God’s existence, atheists began to argue that the amount of evil in the world makes the existence of God unlikely. “Why,” they ask, “is there so much evil in the world?” James Corman and Keith Lehrer are representative of this modified argument:
If you were all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and you were going to create a universe in which there were sentient beings — beings who are happy and sad; enjoy pleasure; feel pain; express love, anger, pity, hatred — what kind of world would you create? Being all-powerful, you would have the ability to create any world that it is logically possible for you to create, and being all-knowing you would know how to create any of these logically possible worlds. Which one would you choose? Obviously you would choose the best of all the possible worlds because you would be all-good and would want to do what is best in everything you do. You would, then, create the best of all the possible worlds, that is, that world containing the least amount of evil possible. And because one of the most obvious kinds of evil is suffering, hardship, and pain, you would create a world in which the sentient beings suffered the least. Try to imagine what such a world would be like. Would it be like the one which actually does exist, this world we live in? Would you create a world such as this one if you had the power and knowhow to create any logically possible world? If your answer is “no,” as it seems it must be, then you should begin to understand why the evil of suffering and pain in this world is such a problem for anyone who thinks God created this world. This does not seem to be the kind of world God would create, and certainly not the kind of world he would sustain. Given this world, then, it seems we should conclude that it is improbable that it was created or sustained by anything we would call God. Thus, given this particular world, it seems we should conclude that it is improbable that God – who if he exists, created this world – exists. Consequently, the belief that God does not exist, rather than the belief that he exists, would seem to be justified by the evidence we find in this world.
The claim that God’s existence is improbable given the amount of evil in the world is a much more modest and tenable argument, but it too is problematic. In his debate with Clancy Martin, J.P. Moreland made the point that asking why there is so much evil in the world is an iterative question; i.e. it can be asked over and over again, without any answer being sufficient. If there was only half the amount of evil in the world, the question could still be asked, “Why is there so much evil in the world?” Indeed, if the amount of evil was cut in half again, the question could still be asked ad infinitum. It quickly becomes apparent that the real issue is not the amount of evil, but the presence of evil in the world altogether. Ultimately, then, the argument against God based on the amount of evil in the world is just a restatement of the general problem of evil.
To make this point clear to an interlocutor you might ask, “Would you cease complaining about evil if the amount of evil was reduced in half? What about if it was reduced by 72%? How much evil in the world would you say is acceptable?”
There is an even deeper problem that often goes unnoticed: How does one even go about quantifying evil? As Plantinga notes in God, Freedom, and Evil, evil is not the kind of thing that can be quantified. It wouldn’t make any sense to say “that act contained 35 turps of evil.” This is not to say it’s impossible for there to be a world in which fewer evil acts/events occurred. There could be, but that point is irrelevant. God could have created a world containing no evil by creating a world without any free creatures at all. The relevant question, however, is whether He could have created a world containing free creatures that not only contains less evil, but the same amount of proportional good. As Plantinga notes, it’s not at all obvious that this was possible. It could be that our world contains the most amount of good and the least amount of evil possible for free creatures. This is a logically coherent explanation to why this world contains the amount of evil it does. Admittedly, such a proposition cannot be proven, but neither can it be disproven. As William Lane Craig notes, our epistemic finitude prohibits us from being able to properly evaluate such grand cost-benefit calculations. God, however, is not limited in this way. So long as it is logically possible that the amount of evil in the world is necessary to obtain a maximal amount of goodness, the argument against God’s existence based on the amount of evil in the world fails.
James W. Cornman, Keith Lehrer, and George S. Pappas, Philosophical Problems and Arguments: An Introduction, 3d edition, 1982; available from http://www.ditext.com/cornman/corn5.html; Internet; accessed 06 October 2009.
J.P. Moreland, debating philosopher Clancy Martin on the question, “Does the Christian God Exist?” December 1, 2005 at St. Joseph, MO.