Problem of Evil

The problem of evil, often understood simply as the problem of suffering, is frequently seen as the biggest obstacle to belief in a loving God. Most people probably don’t need much introduction to it. A passage from David Hume is always used to introduce it: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Before we delve into the responses to this argument, we should take a look at some important distinctions, in order to set the stage.

The Logical vs. Evidential Problem of Evil

The problem can be formulated both as a deductive or inductive argument. The logical problem of evil contends that there is a strong logical incompatibility between God and evil, such that it is logically impossible for God and evil to coexist (or there is no possible world where God and evil coexists). The inductive or evidential problem of evil is more modest. It simply claims that the existence of evil in the world, and also its extent and severity, makes the existence of a loving God unlikely or improbable. Interestingly, the logical problem of evil is not defended in philosophy academia anymore, and understandably so. It is a very strong claim that God could have no possible reason for allowing evil. To refute the logical problem of evil, you only need a response that is logically possible. It doesn’t need to be probable at all. It simply needs to be logically coherent, because the logical problem alleges that there is no logical possibility (no logically coherent scenario) where God and evil could coexist. It is important to understand the distinction here between logical possibility and plausibility. Logical possibility refers merely to any idea that is not self-contradictory. So, unicorns running across rainbows is a logical possibility, but it is not plausible, given what we know of things. To defeat the logical problem of evil, we simply need a logical possibility. The probabilistic problem of evil requires a more robust response.

Emotional vs. Intellectual Problem of Evil

Another important distinction that William Lane Craig always makes when discussing the problem is between the emotional and intellectual problem of evil. The emotional problem can give a lot of rhetorical force to the problem of evil, but it doesn’t add anything to the rational or intellectual problem itself. Emotional states are not necessarily irrational, but they are non-rational (in that they are not always contrary to reason but they, in principle, do not obey reason or are not organized according to reason). In other words, emotions are clearly to be bracketed out when considering an intellectual problem. It is important to establish this distinction early on, because someone will always say, after you’ve presented your theodicy, “Well, would you tell that to somebody who has just undergone [insert horrible experience].” Whether or not a theodicy would satisfy someone who is going through a difficult time is irrelevant. Theodicies are not designed to be counselling tools or to satisfy someone’s emotional anguish, and it is irrational to expect them to be. Everybody knows that the suffering person is emotionally invested in the question and therefore cannot look at the issue objectively or purely intellectually. Some people will also say that they find theodicies “offensive” and insulting, but don’t raise any rational objection against it, which shows that they are busy with the emotional problem, not the intellectual one.

It is also worth noting that there are many religious people who go through terrible experiences, but don’t shake their fists at heaven, or feel any deep betrayal or resentment at God. Scenes like these are common in pop culture and are promoted by people who do not themselves believe in God (or who dislike the traditional Christian God) in order to undermine orthodox religion (such as Stephen Fry’s famous rant about the problem of evil). In other words, we shouldn’t thereby believe that this represents a trend in the general populace. Even the emotional problem of evil is only a problem for some people. Indeed, third-world countries where people undergo much more severe suffering than most people do in Western countries, are also much more religious than the West. So, evidently, the emotional problem of evil is not as much of a problem there, even though, if anyone has a right to be angry with God, it would be them. Ironically, the people who complain most about the problem of evil (secular Westerners) are usually much better off not only than the rest of the world today, but also than people in general were throughout human history. Westerners live in the most prosperous and comfortable societies that have ever existed. This isn’t to dismiss the experience of those who do feel angry with God, but I’m simply pointing out that their experiences are not normative or archetypal in some way. So if we’re going to take the emotional problem of evil as part of the problem of evil, why should we prioritize the experience of the people who do feel resentment at God over those who do not?

Moral and Natural Evil

Another important distinction is that between moral and natural evil. Moral evil is the evil that results from the actions of moral agents. Natural evil is basically everything else (such as suffering that results from natural disasters or animal pain). We will look at responses to both types of evil.

Suffering as the Greatest Evil? Happiness as the Greatest Value?

The problem of evil often contains an implicit assumption that suffering is the greatest evil or that the most important thing God could do for us, his overriding concern, should be to protect us from suffering, and to give us happiness. Thus, it depends to a great extent on whether suffering is the greatest evil. But there are good reasons to think that it is false that suffering is the greatest evil and that the primary concern of a truly loving being would be to prevent suffering in the objects of his love. It also makes assumptions about what the most important aspect of human beings is. Is it their emotions and desires or their moral character and soul?

It is interesting to note that the problem of evil has become synonymous with the problem of suffering. Why? Secular morality has a habit of making suffering into the worst evil, even the only evil, and happiness or pleasure into the highest good or even the only good. When atheist philosophers and critics talk about the problem of evil, they always focus on people (or animals) suffering ( even though there are other kinds of evil). These other kinds of evil seem never to be a concern for atheist philosophers. Why are there no atheist philosophers who feel deeply puzzled at the existence of cowardice, dishonesty and licentiousness? This is also the problem of evil. But anyway,  the Christian God is not primarily concerned with our happiness, but with our character.  Somebody who thinks that happiness is the only or primary concern of love is ignorant about the real nature of love. Let’s take the parental analogy. Say two parents raise a child who is narcissistic and selfish, but they do not want to correct him (or her) because they think it will come at the expense of the child’s happiness. These parents are obviously bad parents. They have allowed the happiness rather than the character of their child to become their primary concern. Of course, parents who ignore the happiness of their child are bad parents as well, but when there has to be a choice between character and happiness, the good parent, the truly loving parent will always choose character. Character trumps happiness. Character has priority. Happiness is secondary. The problem of evil is successful if you carry around a notion of mercy and love as that which a spoilt child or a self-indulgent rich kid might carry around. (Again, the fact that the problem of evil is only an issue in rich and stable countries becomes relevant once more.) A love that sates your every desire and perceived need and jumps at your every whim or fancy like an extremely conscientious butler, is not really love at all. It is probably a form of indifference rather than love. It doesn’t care about your character, your personhood. It identifies you with your wants and so dehumanizes you. This is a nihilistic and permissive notion of love. There is nothing about virtue, nothing about the meaning and purpose of life, nothing to teach you courage and discipline, never having to do anything self-sacrificial. On the contrary, true and perfect benevolence would not be indulgent of our evils. It would squash our egotism and vanity, which, as the paragon of selflessness, it would find disgusting to an extent that we cannot even imagine. It would discipline us until we were perfect. Luckily, also being merciful, he does not identify us irrevocably with our sins. Proponents of the problem of evil always emphasize the benevolence of God as though they think that this will translate into compassion ( not even that, since secular people often have a permissive and nihilistic notion of compassion which is not equivalent to the Christian idea of mercy). But the Christian tradition emphasizes other responses just as much. What will be the response of a perfect benevolence to a world filled with moral evil, malevolence and selfishness? Justice. This doesn’t mean of course that all suffering is the result of divine justice, but it does mean that some of it is. This does not mean that we should presume to know which suffering is divine punishment and which is not. Even if we know that particular suffering is the result of divine punishment, we should always respond with mercy, knowing that all of us deserve divine punishment as well, if not for Christ’s atonement.

Another interesting critique of the notion that happiness is the most important value in life comes from Robert Nozick, a very influential American philosopher. This critique takes place in his criticism of utilitarianism: the ethical theory which contends that one must, in all one’s actions, endeavour to maximize happiness for as many people as possible and minimize pain. Nozick’s objection takes the form of an insightful thought experiment called the “Experience machine”. Nozick asks us to imagine a machine, which can simulate any life that we want while we are plugged into it. So naturally, we will choose all the pleasures of life without any of the pains. When we are plugged in we wouldn’t know that we are only living a dream, but will think that it’s all really happening. We can program it so that after two years, we’ll have a small break from the machine, so that we can program the next two years of our lives. We don’t have to worry about this little break (which will probably be quite depressing), because only ten minutes and we’ll be plugged in again, and we’ll be perfectly happy once more. Our lives would be bliss; exactly how we want them. There would be no misery, no disappointment, no failure, no suffering. And then Nozick asks us the million dollar question, “Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? Nor should you refrain because of the few moments of distress between the moment you’ve decided and the moment you’re plugged. What’s a few moments of distress compared to a lifetime of bliss (if that’s what you choose) and why feel any distress at all if your decision is the best one?”[i] My instinctual response to this question was to reject the experience machine, and I suspect it is the same with many people. Intuitively, we recognize that a life lived in a dream would be a life wasted, even if this dream-life can provide us with a perfect happiness. But if happiness is the most important thing in life, then why should we prefer reality to a dream, if the dream is happier?  Happiness, or at least immediate happiness of this life, cannot be the most important ( although it is certainly one of the important things). We know that truth and courage, at least in this instance, is more important than mere happiness. David Stove, the controversial Australian philosopher, provides us with similar objections to the contention that happiness is the most important. He considers how parents, when asked what or who they want their babies to be when they grow up, answers “As long as they’re happy.  That’s all that really matters isn’t it?”Stove, with his usual frankness, answers, “…He may grow into a man who can be happy only by raping every woman he can reach and who, favored by fortune, in fact leads a supremely happy life. Would the spectacle of his life make you happy then?”[ii]  Nozick expresses his point effectively elsewhere as well:

“Some theorists have claimed that happiness is the only important thing about life; all that should matter to a person – they say – is being happy; the sole standard for assessing a life is the amount or quantity of happiness it contains. It is ironic that making this exclusive claim for happiness distorts the flavor of what happy moments are like. For in these moments, almost everything seems wonderful: the way the sun shines, the way that person looks, the way water glistens on the river, the way the dogs play ( yet not the way the murderer kills). This openness of happiness, its generosity of spirit and width of appreciation, gets warped and constricted by the claim—pretending to be its greatest friend—that only happiness matters, nothing else. The claim is begrudging, unlike happiness itself. Happiness can be previous, perhaps even preeminent, yet still be one important thing among others.”[iii]

Let’s look at another thought experiment. A wife has suddenly contracted a terrible and rare illness that causes her immense pain, not only physical but also emotional. Pain medication, for some reason, does nothing to quell the pain. The doctors don’t know whether she will live or die since it is an unknown strain of disease, even though it appears as though she is getting weaker. If we are to take the pain-happiness measure as our guide, then it would be right to kill her. Her husband obviously does not want this to happen. We might say happiness gained in the end would be greater than suffering in present if she were to live. However even if this were not the case, even if the rest of the life would be relatively devoid of happiness, the spouse would still want her to get through it and not die. Is this simply selfishness on his part or may it truly be called his love? Wouldn’t there be something wrong if the love of the spouse led him to zealously insist on her death instead of her fighting the illness? If happiness and the avoidance of suffering is supremely important, then it is more important than her life. If happiness is the most important thing, then a life where suffering predominates is not worth being lived. There is something wrong with this picture. The genuine love or the benevolence of the husband leads him to insist on her suffering, instead of choosing an alternative that would relieve her suffering. There are cases in which love could insist on suffering instead of something that it regards as a greater evil in the circumstances. According to philosophical hedonism, a life of suffering is not a valuable life. However, we intuitively realize that the mere fact of being alive is more important than whether there is suffering and how much of it there is.  Let’s take a different example. Say parents are informed when their child is born that he will struggle for his entire life and probably die at a young age. He has a disease which causes him continual discomfort and he will not be able to live anything close to a normal life. His life will probably be a tragedy. Would there not still be something twisted or grotesque in a response of the parents that the baby should rather be put down so that he would not suffer? We know that life is much more complex and profound than the mere acquisition of happiness. Would it be better for a person to die, if their life would be a succession of tragedies, interspersed with ephemeral and illusory joys. According to philosophical hedonism, a life where suffering is dominant is not a valuable life. We know, however, that a life of suffering is better than no life at all. Happiness is not the goal of life.

So the idea that suffering is the greatest evil and that a benevolent God would be primarily concerned with bringing about happiness in his creatures, and preventing their suffering, is false. If this is realized then the problem of suffering is weakened a very great deal, because it would mean that the benevolence of God is perfectly compatible with suffering, even intense suffering. A healthy love will consider happiness as only one factor among many that needs to be taken into consideration. I want to conclude this section with a C.S. Lewis quote which illustrates the principle nicely.

“You asked for a loving God: you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect’, is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, nor the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.”[iv]

But there’s so much suffering!

There is often the suggestion that when masses of people are killed in some natural disaster, or genocide or other large-scale atrocity, that this cannot possibly be explained in terms of God’s benevolence. We either mean that the death of the people is bad or that the pain of the one’s left behind is bad and that there is something crucial in the fact that so many people died at one time. Death in itself I don’t think is bad when we don’t perpetrate it ourselves through suicide or murder. After all, if we are to take philosophical hedonism as our guiding light, then the state of physical death, for the individual, is not bad.  The pain of the loved ones and those who suffered injuries is bad. The force of this question derives from the fact that there are many people suffering and that this is harder to explain than individual suffering. In the first place, I don’t think there is a fundamental difference. To a third-party bystander it might appear worse, but to the people suffering the pain it would be the same if their loved one had been the only one that died than as one of many. Suffering is inherently individual and subjective – so there isn’t more suffering if many people suffer. There is only more suffering if individuals experience more pain subjectively. The individual suffering remains the same and the communal nature of the suffering (the fact that many other people are also suffering) does not add to individual suffering (at least not in any significant way). In fact, the collective nature of the suffering might give the individual comfort; a sense that other people understand their grief and can support such a person in an authentic way. Conversely, being the only one in one’s community who suffered loss will lead to feelings of isolation. Also, there is no difference, in terms of the exprience of suffering, between the suffering of many individuals in the same geographical zone and time or stretched out over a large period of time over a large swath of space. So, whether one person died, or many died, it is a very similar situation for the people actually doing the suffering. A natural disaster or genocide can kill many people at the same time, but in another geographical zone the same number of people may have died over a period of many years. There is no difference in terms of the experience of suffering. It would be hard to contend that the difference in time (gradually or instantaneously) increases the suffering; it simply increases the sensationalism of the event for the onlookers. To the bystanders on the world stage, a natural disaster or some genocidal disaster in which many people suffer and die at the same time, or close to the same time, rather than stretched out over time with people suffering and dying incrementally, has a much more dramatic effect. Thus instantaneous and collective suffering and death seems much worse, but in reality, it is not significantly different to gradual and individual suffering that occurs more commonly.

This is also important, because people who defend the problem of evil will often appeal to the number of people suffering, all over the world, and in the past. But, as we’ve seen, since suffering is a subjective experience, the number of people who experience it is irrelevant. The number of people who are suffering at one time does not increase or decrease the actual experience of suffering and the actual experience of suffering is the only relevant variable. Let’s look at a thought experiment. Say we have a world (World A) where there are 50 people. 49 of the people lead blissful lives without any suffering. The last person (let’s call him John) undergoes a great deal of constant and intense suffering. Now consider a different world (World B) in which all 50 people suffer, but less than John in World A. In other words, we can say that the suffering of the John in World A is “divided up” equally among all 50 people in World B. So everybody is suffering but it is much less intense than the suffering of John in World A. Which is the better world, other things being equal? Which world contains less suffering? World B contains less suffering. More people are suffering but from the point of view of the actual experience of suffering ( which is the only relevant variable), there is less suffering in World B than there is in World A. So the fact that there are more people suffering does not ipso facto mean that there is more suffering. To make this example a little more concrete, let’s say that in World A John’s 2 children both die of Leukemia, but everybody else leads blissful lives without any suffering. In World B, everybody’s child becomes very ill, but all of them survive. So, there is suffering in World B, but everybody experiences it and it is much less intense than the suffering of one person of World A. Which is the better world? Clearly, World B. Again, more people suffering does not ipso facto mean that there is more suffering.

Free Will Defense

According to the free will defense, the existence of free will among some beings outweighs its negative consequences (moral evil). Having free creatures sometimes choosing good and sometimes choosing evil is better than having a world of automatons having been programmed by God to always choose good. Such a world would contain no real moral good, because it would contain no moral agents who are responsible for their actions.  Alvin Plantinga formulated a very influential version of the defense, which we will look at now. Crucial to the free will defense is the idea, usually held by theologians and theist philosophers, that God cannot do the logically contradictory. God cannot create a square circle or make it so that a chair both exists and doesn’t exist.[v] This doesn’t represent a limitation on his omnipotence, because these scenarios are just nonsense – they don’t represent a real way things could have been. Besides, if God could make the logically impossible true, then we wouldn’t need an answer to the problem of evil. So, God cannot bring it about both that there are “significantly free” creatures and make sure that they always choose the good. If he has to make sure that they always choose the good, then he is determining them, which means that they’re not free. And if they’re really free, then they will have the opportunity to do wrong. And if they have that opportunity, we can reasonably expect that some of them will take it. Plantinga observes, “The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.”[vi]

You might say that people could still have free will to choose evil, but God can make it so that those actions don’t have any consequence in the world. In other words, when someone intends to murder someone else, God can organize events so that it never happens, no matter how hard they try. It is doubtful however that people in such a world would be “significantly free.” If someone who intends to do evil, but can never actually succeed in doing it and then just gives up, not because they want to do good, but simply because it is literally impossible to do anything bad, then that person is not really free to be evil. Thus, having free will means having some form of power to influence the world in the way in which you choose. If people cannot actually do what they choose to do then it is meaningless to say that they are free. There is a possible world where people are both free and no moral evil exists, but it is exactly because they are free that the actualization of that world depends upon both them and God. If they are really free, God cannot actualize that possible world without their cooperation.

You may notice that the free will defense does not seamlessly apply to the problem of natural evil, including natural disasters, disease, and animal pain. This is because natural disasters and diseases are not the result of people doing wrong things and animals don’t have free will and so are not moral agents. Plantinga responds to the problem of natural evil by extending his free will defense to the action of supernatural agents (the free actions of angels).

Skeptical Theism

This is a fairly popular response among theists to the problem of evil and there are many ways to formulate it. All the skeptical theist arguments appeal to some fact or cognitive limitation that makes it unlikely that we would know what God’s reasons would be for allowing evil (if he existed). One version of it goes something like this. If God exists, there is no good reason to think that we would be able to understand why God would allow evil. Probably, adherents of the problem of evil would admit that if God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing certain types of evil, then there is good reason to suppose that God and evil are not incompatible. But given that we cannot see the future and we have a very limited comprehension of all the implications and consequences of events and actions, we couldn’t possibly think that we would be able to discern whether a particular evil event did not have some morally sufficient reason that would only come to be in the future or be one of the implications of the event in some other part of the world. There may be no general or fix-all response that we can give to all the suffering in the world. Each event of suffering may have its own justification among some of its implications or consequences (all of which we cannot see). In other words, an adequate answer to the problem of evil would require us to know things about the world we usually don’t (and cannot) know. The skeptical theist response is attractive for Christians because it accords most with how the Bible responds to the problem of suffering. In Job chapter 38, God responds to Job’s complaints about his suffering. The implication of the long poem that follows, is that Job simply doesn’t have the knowledge to judge whether his own suffering really represents an injustice on God’s part. God asks Job various questions about the world and concludes, “Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.” (Job 40:2)

Other Skepticisms?

Above I’ve only sketched one type (and a pretty simple type) of skeptical theism. There are many other kinds, that, for example contend that we should not have much confidence in our ability to know the content of different possible worlds (modal skepticism) and we shouldn’t have much confidence in our ability to make very accurate moral judgments, such as about the compatibility of an evil world with a loving God. This wouldn’t deny that we could have some confidence in our moral judgments. But we should also take note of the diversity of moral judgments across, and even within, cultures and societies. And we can sometimes recognize that we ourselves have personally misjudged a situation morally, or have not recognized some aspect of a situation that was in fact charged with moral significance. Thus, we shouldn’t have confidence enough to say that if God exists, he is doing wrong when allowing evil. If God does exist, he is likely to have a much firmer and more “clear-headed” grasp of what is wrong and what is not, than we do.

William Alston, an influential American philosopher of religion, identifies 6 areas in which we are likely “cognitively limited” with respect to making an accurate judgment about the problem of evil:

  1. “Lack of relevant data.

  2. Complexity greater than we can handle.

  3. Difficulty of determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary.

  4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities.

  5. Ignorance of the full range of values.

  6. Limits to our capacity to make well-considered value judgments.”[vii]

​We’ve already seen why we lack the data necessary to conclude that certain evils cannot have a morally justifying reason in one of its consequences, either in some other place in the world, or in the future. We can also see that the issue involves complexities that make it difficult for us to make accurate judgments about it, both because of what we’ve already covered, but also because we don’t know all the subjective aspects of people’s lives and whether an event of suffering would be beneficial for their characters (or soul) or serve as moral justice for something they’ve done, or serve to prevent their damnation, or prevent them from doing something horrible in the future, or to prevent some event that might bring greater suffering to both that person and others. It is also difficult for us to see what would be a viable or possible world for God to create (we certainly don’t have relevant data to determine this). This issue is more complex than merely logical possibility. We need to be able to determine which aspects are most important in human life and then see how beings can live in a world which instantiates that good in an optimal way. This becomes even more complicated if there must be some beings in this world who are free and responsible for their actions.


If God does exist, shouldn’t we expect him to provide us with the cognitive faculties to understand his permitting of evil? It is an obstacle to faith both to some believers and to unbelievers. So doesn’t it give evidence that God does not exist if he doesn’t provide us with an answer?[viii] This objection assumes that we will like the answer that God has for the problem of evil. Perhaps God deems it better that we not know what the moral justification is for the problem of evil and maybe knowing what the justification is would result in more resentment at God. It is quite conceivable that God’s answer makes best intellectual sense but does not satisfy us emotionally (in the same way that all theodicies do).  Also, As Trent Dougherty notes: “One kind of reply to the objection given is to argue that the objector has taken the data of the argument from evil – typically horrendous evils – and replaced them with some relatively minor evils. Expected or not, these minor evils would not make much of a case against the existence of God.”[ix] The idea here is that the objection to the skeptical theist argument does not attack any premises in the argument itself, but looks at a potential consequence of the argument. If the argument is valid, then we wouldn’t be justified in concluding from the existence of horrendous evils that God does not exist. The evil that might be a consequence of the argument is much milder evil, and more easily explained, than horrific evils. If we have these limitations, and I think it is fairly clear that we do, then we cannot “make the jump” from the fact that we don’t know why a loving God would allow evil, to the idea that there are no good reasons why a loving God would allow evil.

Soul-Making Theodicy

John Hick was an influential philosopher of religion at the University of Birmingham, probably best known for his defense of religious pluralism. Hick also defended an ancient theodicy first promulgated by the Church Father Irenaeus. Hick presents the theodicy with a particular theological backdrop: that man was not created as perfect and then fell in sin, in the more orthodox Augustinian view, but that “man [is] still in the process of creation.”[x] It is doubtful however, that the soul-making theodicy requires this backdrop. It can fit just as well with the more orthodox view, in that our souls need to be perfected or built up anew after the Fall. It is beneficial that this should be done through human free will in cooperation with God, rather than by “divine fiat”, because “personal life is essentially free and self-directing.”[xi]Hick expands upon this idea: “One who has attained to goodness by meeting and eventually mastering temptation, and thus by rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations, is good in a richer and more valuable sense than would be one created ab initio in a state either of innocence or of virtue…I suggest then, that it is an ethically reasonable judgment…that human goodness slowly built up through personal histories of moral effort has a value in the eyes of the Creator which justifies even the long travail of the soul-making process.”[xii]

Hick also draws upon the parental analogy that I’ve already touched upon in dealing with the question of whether suffering should be regarded as the greatest evil. “Needless to say, this characterization of God as the heavenly Father is not a merely random illustration but an analogy that lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Jesus treated the likeness between the attitude of God to man, and the attitude of human parents at their best towards their children, as proving the most adequate way for us to think about God…Certainly we seek pleasure for our children, and take great delight in obtaining it for them; but we do not desire for them unalloyed pleasure at the expense of their growth in such even greater values as moral integrity, unselfishness, compassion, courage, humour, reverence for truth, and perhaps above all the capacity for love.”[xiii]

Higher-Order Goods Defence

Richard Swinburne contends that natural evils make possible the expression of virtues that would not otherwise be possible. For example, compassion is impossible without pain. And it is good that people feel compassion or think in a compassionate way whether or not they act on it. Swinburne expands on this, “But I suggest that a world with some pain and some compassion is at least as good as a world with no pain.”[xiv] Compassion, of course, is not the only virtue that cannot exist without evil. Real selflessness is impossible without the privation and suffering of others. Nobody needs your selflessness if nobody’s suffering and the best selflessness is when the action comes at great personal cost to you. You can’t be courageous without something to fear (without danger, without the probability of suffering) or while you are actually suffering. Suffering provides the occasion for patience and unselfishness. It is much easier to be selfless when you are happy. It is a greater good to be selfless when you are yourself unhappy. The Higher-Order Goods Defense deals with both the problem of moral evil and natural evil, since both moral and natural evil give occasion for virtue. What then about animal pain? Swinburne contends that even though animals might not be moral agents or have free will, it is still good for them display qualities like courage and altruism (even if these don’t have a significant moral quality). “Good actions may be good without being freely chosen”[xv] They may be good, even if they are not morally good. So, moral good freely chosen is clearly far superior, but determined good is still good. And this good adds a beauty to the world that would not otherwise have been there.

[i] Nozick, Robert, The Experience Machine, in Ethical Theory: An Anthology , edited by Russ Shafer- Landau, ( Oxford: Blackwell, 2007) p. 292-293

[ii] Stove, David, What’s Wrong With Benevolence: Happiness, Private Property, and the Limits of the Enlightenment, edited by Andrew Irvine, (New York: Encounter Books, 2011) p. 113-114

[iii] Robert Nozick, The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, (Touchstone: New York, 1989) p. 99

[iv] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (London: Harper Collins, 1940) p. 39

[v] Alvin Plantinga, “The Free Will Defense” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology by Michael Rea and Louis P. Pojman, 5th ed. ( Belmont: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008) 184

[vi] ibid., 190

[vii] Alston, William, 1996, “Some (Temporarily) Final Thoughts on Evidential Arguments from Evil,” in Howard-Snyder 1996, 311-332 quoted in Trent Dougherty, “Skeptical Theism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014, accessed January 8, 2017,

[viii] Trent Dougherty, “Skeptical Theism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2014, accessed January 8, 2017,

[ix] Ibid.

[x] John Hick, “Evil and Soul-Making,” in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology by Michael Rea and Louis P. Pojman, 5th ed. ( Belmont: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008) 165

[xi] Ibid., 166

[xii] Ibid., 166

[xiii] Ibid., 167

[xiv] Richard Swinburne, “Providence and the Problem of Evil,” Ch. 9, Oxford Scholarship Online, November 2003, DOI 10.1093/0198237987.003.0009,

[xv] Ibid.