The problem of evil is a significant issue for theists because, if the type of god they believe in is all powerful, all good and all knowing, then it stands to reason that the presence of evil in the world should be both undesirable and preventable, yet God chooses to do nothing about it.
However, this creates a powerful contradiction. If we know that evil exists, then one of these characteristics of god must break. The argument looks like this:
- God prefers good over evil
- God has the power to prevent evil
- Evil exists (contradiction)
A common response to this problem is that, while evil may exist, it exists to create some greater good down the line, even a good that we cannot anticipate or know – not being God ourselves. For example, a significant natural disaster might sweep through an area and devastate a small village, destroying homes, parting loved ones and ruining lives.
However, in the aftermath, these people might learn how to come together, support one another, and become a stronger, more cohesive village in the future, having triumphed over adversity. Thus, taken on the whole, a greater amount of good rather than evil came from this event.
To an extent, this argument does have some credence. If you look at history, we are ever progressing towards a greater humanitarian state, with less evil, less pain, and more goodness, more charity. Steven Pinker frequently notes this in his research, and it seems that overall the trend towards a better, happier world has been a constant through history.
In other words, the evils of yesterday – if taken in aggregate – have allowed for a much better today. Likewise of the evils today, it seems to suggest that we can look forward to a brighter tomorrow. This seems to fit the theist's argument that evil exists for a reason.
However, to get back to the earlier point, it should be safe to assume that god created a world with precisely the correct amount of evil in it to maximize, at the end of it all, the amount of good in the world. Or the number of people that come to accept him as their saviour. Or whatever his motivations might be.
In other words, no single significant or insignificant occurrence of evil should be considered gratuitous – all evil should have meaning, and be balanced by some greater good that is achieved by it. Otherwise, why allow it as an all powerful, all knowing and all loving god?
However, if such a world could be created with slightly less evil but the same or more good in it, then it stands to reason that such a world would be preferable to God. And if it's preferable, why wouldn't he have created that world rather than this world, if he had the power and foresight to do so?
If you so far accept this reasoning, then my only further challenge is to argue that a world could indeed be achieved with some small reduction in evil, but nevertheless the same or greater amount of overall good.
To do this, I'll take a slightly modified version of William Rowe's fawn scenario: imagine a fawn in the wilderness somewhere. In this forest, lightning strikes a dead tree, causing a fire and trapping the fawn underneath it – where it is severely burned and dies several days later in agonizing pain.
I would be intrigued to see what logical argument could be made to say that, in fact, some greater good is achieved by this single event. Certainly for the fawn, this cannot be the case, but even when looking at it from a global context. Would the world not be at least indifferent to the suffering of this poor animal, or perhaps even be slightly improved by having the fawn not die in such misery?
If so, then why allow this situation to occur? And yet this sort of thing happens all the time, and has frequently throughout history. Even the many mass extinction of animals throughout history has been excessively cruel – for example, many dinosaurs died out not in one blazing moment as the asteroid impacted, but days, weeks, maybe even months after from starvation. Was this truly necessary, and in precisely this manner?
And so, I believe I can argue that, in fact, our world is not in any possible definition of the word maximally “good,” and that God could have done better, even if only slightly. I would also argue that this leaves us in a position where we have to accept one of the following three propositions:
- God does not sufficiently care about suffering
- God is impotent to reduce suffering
- God simply does not exist
Naturally, my position is that God does not exist.