The Problem of Evil: An Exchange Between Two Philosophers

The problem of evil is one of the oldest arguments against the existence of the traditional concept of God. The traditional concept of God is of a being who is all-powerful and all-good[1]. In this short paper, I’m going to be examining an exchange between Philosophers, Dr.Sinnott-Armstrong and Dr. Craig. on the problem of evil, specifically the evidential problem of evil. First, I’m going to explain Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument from evil. Next, I’m going to explain Craig’s response. And lastly, I’m going to give my thought on Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument.

The following is Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument from evil[2]:

1. If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world, unless that evil is logically necessary for an adequately compensating good.

2. There is lots of evil in the world.

3. Much of that evil is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good.

4. Therefore, there is no God who is all-powerful and all-good.

The argument obviously claims that there is a lot of evil in the world, which isn’t controversial. From there, the argument goes on to talk about certain evils that God would not allow. The claim is that if God exists, then he wouldn’t allow evil that is gratuitous/pointless. In other words, God wouldn’t allow evil that isn’t necessary in order to bring about greater goods. Since premise 2 isn’t controversial, a lot of arguments from evil just implicitly assume it and don’t mention it.

As a result of this, Craig simplifies the argument as saying the following[3]:

1. If God exists, then pointless suffering doesn’t exist

2. Pointless suffering exists

3. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

Sinnott-Armstrong wants to stress that his argument is of an evidential form and not a logical form. In other words, evil doesn’t conclusively disprove God beyond all possible doubt. Rather, evil is taken as really strong evidence against God’s existence; this is the evidential argument from evil.[4] So, Sinnott-Armstrong grants that there is no logical contradiction between the propositions “evil exists” and “God exists”. If one grants all of Sinnott-Armstrong’s premises, then all other things being equal, God probably doesn’t exist. In order to support his main premise, premise 3, Sinnott-Armstrong cites natural evils. Natural evils include things like earthquakes, cancer, animal suffering, aids, tornadoes, etc.[5] The point is, there is a lot of natural evil. Of course nature isn’t really “evil” because nature is indifferent. The point is that there is a lot of natural suffering, and a lot of natural suffering doesn’t seem to be necessary for an adequately compensating good. Sinnott-Armstrong notes that since God is supposed to be all-powerful and all-good, we only need to find one single instance where there is pointless suffering.[6]

Sinnott-Armstrong then goes on to reply to the various objections to the arguments Most of the objections lay out reasons for why God allows evil. One reason God allows evil is because he’s punishing sin. Sinnott-Armstrong explains that this doesn’t explain evils like babies suffering (or animals). Another reason that God allows evil is because it builds character. But Sinnott-Armstrong says again that this response doesn’t explain why babies die or suffer.[7] Next, Sinnott-Armstrong responded to the objection that “God has a reason for every evil, we just can’t see it”. He gives an analogy of a cruel neighbor and wonders why it is different from God allowing seemingly pointless evils. He also wonders why God doesn’t just give us his reasons for allowing evil.[8] Lastly, Sinnott-Armstrong respond to the objection that, “The arguments for God’s existence, if good, mean that no instance of suffering is really pointless.” Sinnott-Armstrong says that he doesn’t find any of the arguments compelling. He says that any argument put forward would need to be more obvious than our seeming that suffering really is pointless, if the argument from evil is to be undermined.[9]

Craig’s main attack on Sinnott-Armstrong comes in attacking premise 3. Craig’s main objection is that we aren’t in a good epistemic situation to affirm premise 3 as true.[10] Sure, premise 3 seems true sometimes; it seems true that pointless suffering exists. But how do we really know? Couldn’t God very well have morally sufficient reasons for allowing seemingly pointless suffering? Perhaps, the suffering isn’t pointless in reality. We don’t seem to be in a good epistemic position because if God did have morally sufficient reasons for allowing suffering, would we know those reasons?[11] Another way of putting it, Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument  (premise 3) depends on lack of evidence for God’s reasons. But as Craig seems to be pointing out, lack of evidence isn’t always evidence to the contrary. Given our cognitive limitations as finite creatures, it’s not surprising that we wouldn’t know God’s morally sufficient reasons. Given this fact, we can’t infer that there really is pointless suffering from the fact that it seems like there is pointless suffering; this fact serves as a defeater of our seeming.

Craig also points out that there are Christian doctrines which increase the probability that suffering seems pointless when it is in fact not pointless in reality. Doctrine #1 points out the fact that on Christian theism the point of life is not happiness but a knowledge of God. How often do we assume that life is about happiness? What reason do we have to think that? On Christianity, life is about the knowledge of God which is an infinite good. So even if certain instances of suffering are pointless relative to producing happiness, that wouldn’t mean that those instance of suffering are pointless with respect to bringing people to Him.[12] Doctrine #2 points out that moral evil isn’t surprising on Christian theism.[13]  Doctrine #3 talks about Heaven and how it makes the suffering in this life look very small. Even if certain instances of suffering are pointless with respect to this life, they might not be pointless with respect to the afterlife.[14]

Craig then points out that if someone has good grounds for thinking that God exists, like the arguments for God’s existence, then one can rule out that there really is pointless suffering.[15] This work by moving the argument around to say:
1. If God exists, then pointless suffering doesn’t exist
2. God exists
3. Therefore, suffering exists [16]

Premise 1 isn’t the controversial premise because it’s logically equivalent to premise 1 of the original argument. So, the issue comes down to whether it’s more obvious that God exists or pointless suffering exists. If someone has good reasons to think that God exists, they should conclude that pointless suffering doesn’t exist. If someone doesn’t have good reasons to think God exists, they should accept their seeming as true, which is that suffering really is pointless.

One of the strengths of Sinnott-Armstrong’s arguments is the persuasive force it contains. There’s a lot of emotional baggage that people have in their lives from suffering. It’s natural to ask why God allows suffering. I’m not saying that his argument is just one big fallacious appeal to emotion, but certainly there are emotional elements that go into the argument. Hence, I think an argument can persuade people even if the argument isn’t actually strong or cogent.

I agree with Sinnott-Armstrong that there have been a lot of bad explanations for why God allows evil. This doesn’t mean that I think his argument succeeds, but it does mean that I think there are bad objections to the evidential argument from evil. One example would be when someone says that free will is why God allows evils. It’s true that free will plausibly explains some evil, but free will doesn’t explain all evil. It doesn’t seem to plausibly explain things like cancer, hurricanes, animal suffering, and so on. Moreover, what’s so special about free will? Is it special enough to have the enormous amounts of suffering in this world? Most of us would gladly trade this world for a world with less or no free will, if it meant few or zero instances of suffering.

One of the weaknesses of Sinnott-Armstrong’s argument is that it is somewhat dependent on one’s own personal background knowledge/information.[17] In other words, I don’t see how we can just look at only the argument from evil and dismiss all the other arguments for God’s existence. As mentioned before, Sinnott-Armstrong seems to be aware of this potential weakness/objection. Sinnott-Armstrong seems to also be aware of the theistic arguments like the argument from design, the moral argument, the cosmological argument, etc. The trouble is that he doesn’t think they are persuasive; however, that’s not much of a rebuttal because of course he won’t find the theistic arguments persuasive (There are also theistic arguments that he doesn’t address because Craig doesn’t use those arguments in the debate). Why? Because as an atheist, his background knowledge renders theism to have a low prior probability.

The debate is whether or not God exists, so we can’t just assume that the reality of pointless suffering is more obvious than God’s existence. Is it obvious that suffering is pointless? Obvious to whom? Is there a high probability that suffering really is pointless? Again, the problem is that probability will be pretty subjective because the probability seems to be relative to each person’s prior information. Perhaps, Sinnott-Armstrong could respond that the best explanation of seemingly pointless suffering is naturalism as opposed to theism, which would mean that seemingly pointless suffering provides at least some evidence against theism.[18] This looks like a more modest claim, and I might even be willing to grant this if Sinnott-Armstrong put it forth.

In addition, would we even be aware of God’s reasons for allowing evil? So whether or not God did have reasons, why would we expect to know? As mentioned before, Dr. Craig seems to think there’s a problem. If the proponent of the argument from evil can’t answer this, then I don’t see how the argument can get off the ground. Maybe the response could be something like, “Well of course there would be some/a lot of instances of suffering that we’d not expect know God’s reasons for allowing said instances of suffering. But nevertheless, there seems to be too many instances of suffering that seem pointless.” The idea is that given the hypothesis of theism, it’s surprising that we see so many instances of seemingly pointless evils. Why? Because that’s not what we’d expect if theism were true.

The problem is that I think we can think of probable explanations for many instances of suffering (and many instances of suffering that originally seemed pointless). If we combine this with the fact that there are many instances of seemingly pointless suffering where we wouldn’t expect to know God’s reasons, I think the evidential argument from evil starts to look suspicious.[19] One could object and say that the mysterious nature of the former fact isn’t compatible with the latter fact of giving good explanations for God allowing evil. But why think that? It’s not as if every theist is saying that they are never in a position to come up with reasonable explanations for why God allows evil in various circumstances. The theist could say that she just thinks it’s intuitive that, if God existed, there would be some or a lot of instances of seemingly pointless evils that aren’t actually pointless. The theist doesn’t have to say that it’s always the case that we’d be in the dark about God’s reasons.

[1]This is what I have always been taught by my Philosophy professors.

[2] William Lane Craig; Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (2003-09-18). God?: A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist (Point/Counterpoint). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 85.

[3] Ibid., 113.

[4]Ibid., 86.

[5]Ibid., 85.

[6] Ibid., 84-85.

[7]Ibid., 90.

[8]Ibid., 94-96

[9]Ibid., 96-97

[10]Ibid., 114-117


[12]Ibid., 119-122.

[13]Ibid., 122-123.

[14]Ibid., 123.

[15]Ibid., 124.


[17]Bill Craig. “The Problem of Evil.” 2005.

[18]I only mean this as a potential response. I don’t know how he’d actually respond.

[19]Greg Ganssle. “The Problem of Evil.” A Clear Lens. 2015



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s