Maybe you’ve heard about the problem of evil. It’s an argument atheists like to use to refute the existence of God. Why, they ask, would a good God allow such horrible things to happen so often to innocent people? And there’s no shortage of tragedy they can cite to back up their claim.
But what if evil is evidence for rather than against the existence of God?
This is not to say evil is untroublesome. Evil impacts all of us, likely far more than we can even imagine. But philosophy is about getting to the truth of things, and the truth—at least as I have come to see it—is that evil raises the likelihood of God.
To start, imagine the following scenario, which I borrow from philosopher Tim McGrew. (I am also borrowing ideas from other philosophers in this article, including Joshua Rasmussen and Edward Feser.) You are walking in the woods and stumble upon what appears to be an abandoned cabin. The outside looks decrepit: there is moss, the front door is barely hanging on, and whatever else. But then you peer inside and notice that there’s is a cup of tea steeping. Immediately, you revise your hypothesis from the cabin being abandoned to the cabin being occupied. Why? Because a steeping cup of tea is better predicted and explained by—that is, far more probable on—the hypothesis that the cabin is occupied, notwithstanding the cabin’s condition.
Here is an important feature of this line of reasoning. It does not matter if you cannot assign a specific probability to the likelihood that any given occupied cabin will have a cup of tea steeping in it. It also does not matter if you think the probability of such an occurrence is low or even exceptionally low. What matters is what you believe the probability to be of finding a cup of steeping tea in an occupied cabin versus an abandoned one—for even if you believe that the probability of finding steeping tea is low in any given occupied cabin, surely the probability is far lower in any given abandoned cabin, whatever those specific probabilities are.
So the discovery of steeping tea in any cabin gives great evidence for that cabin being occupied rather than abandoned—in fact, such great evidence that it causes you to be virtually certain that the cabin is occupied. The steeping tea didn’t come about from a fortuitous set of non-intelligent circumstances, like wind blowing plus an earthquake and a lightning strike.
What is the probability that God, if God exists, would create a world like ours with the amount of evil we encounter, like the threat of nuclear war and babies dying and fawns burning in forest fires? Perhaps we think the probability is low—that, given that God is all good, he would not create a world with as much evil as ours. Let’s grant the assumption for now that the probability is low—maybe even exceptionally low, like one or two percent. If so, then do evil and suffering count against the existence of God?
Well, no. Not necessarily, anyway—that is, not unless we see how much we would expect evil on some alternative hypothesis, like atheism (naturalism).
Here is where the story takes an interesting turn: however low we think the occurrence of evil would be given the existence of God, it is, in fact, far lower (if not impossibly low) given the non-existence of God—so much lower that the occurrence of evil provides evidence for, rather than against, God’s existence, like how the cup of steeping tea gives evidence for the occupied cabin.
First is this. To call something evil—that is, really and truly bad (not just a matter of opinion)—we require a moral standard. With no moral standard, nothing can fail to be or do what it should or could have done, and there’s no basis for calling anything evil. Further, to make moral judgments about whether things can objectively fall short, we need conscious agents living in communities and engaged in reasoning about moral realities. What’s more, for there to be any of what we just described, we need some explanation of why there is anything at all and not nothing instead. So evil itself is contingent—it depends upon there being a moral standard, rational agents, moral communities, a contingent universe, etc. We can now ask: would I be more likely to expect these data points and experiences on theism or atheism (naturalism)?
To the first point, theism locks in a moral standard, since God is the subsistent good itself. And if theism is true, then a moral standard is true—God himself. Atheism seems to lack any such standard, because atheism holds that fundamental reality is just amoral physical stuff. How could such stuff as that ever produce a moral standard? It seems impossible that dust, particles, etc. could configure into an objective moral standard, regardless of time or complexity, but even if it is not impossible, surely, it is fantastically improbable.
Perhaps this is why many atheists—the consistent ones, anyway—are nihilists. Atheistic philosopher Alex Rosenberg, for example, calls out his more “teary-eyed” naturalist colleagues for not following their position through to the nihilistic outcome concomitant with it: “Most of those who fear Darwin’s dangerous idea reject it owing to their recognition that it is a universal acid, eating through every available argument for the values people cherish. We differ from those who fear Darwinism because we believe it is true. But we do not think we can or need hide our countenances from the nihilism it underwrites.”
(As a brief aside, Rosenberg is too quick to assume that Darwinism implies nihilism; rather, it is Darwinism atop an assumed—and I would argue demonstrably false—naturalistic metaphysics that implies nihilism. Darwinism itself is something one can be neutral about, ethically speaking.)
What’s more, God could have reason to create rational conscious agents and put them together in moral communities, just like what we see. Atheism lacks explanatory resources here as well, particularly for how rational conscious agents came about from stuff that is once again fundamentally non-rational, non-conscious, unintentional, disparate, etc. If there’s no God to form Adam out of dust, then dust seems to be the wrong sort of material from which minds, and especially rationality, would coincidentally arise. Perhaps it is possible—just as finding a cup of tea in an abandoned cabin is possible (broadly logically speaking) without positing the involvement of people—but it seems far less probable that rational agents living in moral communities would emerge on atheism than theism.
Here is the short of it. The problem of evil points toward the existence of God—the God hypothesis, as it were—because if atheism were true, I would not expect there to be any evil at all, just as I would not expect steeping tea in an abandoned cabin, precisely because I would not expect there to be a contingent universe (frankly, I would expect nothing), a moral standard, moral obligations upon conscious rational agents, and so on. But because there is evil and because theism better predicts or explains those things needed to make sense of evil, then evil provides great evidence for the existence of God.
There is more to be explored on this issue, including why God would create a world with the amount and types of evil we see, but what has been said so far should encourage us to explore such questions as theists. That is all that is needed to diffuse the problem of evil—or if it remains a problem, then it is a problem only for atheism.