3 Tips for Apologists on the Problem of Evil

the problem with the problem of evil

Over the past 20 years, I’ve listened to various apologetic responses to the atheistic argument from evil, which says that God’s existence is improbable given the fact of apparently pointless suffering in the world. Some responses have been more helpful than others, so I’d like to offer 3 tips on how an apologist can best approach the problem.

1. Take a Balanced Perspective

There are two extremes to avoid when replying to the argument from pointless suffering: hyper-theodicy and anti-theodicy. The first tries to provide a comprehensive explanation of all the suffering we see; whereas the second rejects any kind of theodicy on the grounds that humans are in no good position to be making probability estimates about the likelihood of evil vis-à-vis theism. However, both extremes are failures. Hyper-theodicy fails because specific kinds, amounts, intensities, and durations of suffering seem to fall through the cracks and defy explanation. Marilyn McCord Adams calls these “horrendous evils.” Anti-theodicy fails because the concept of God is instructive and provides human beings with (at least) partial insight into the kinds of worlds that God would prefer to make – i.e. given his maximal goodness, knowledge, and power. Therefore, I suggest that apologists take the middle road: theodicy helps us to explain some of the evils we see, but at most it provides a partial answer, never a completely satisfactory answer. This balanced approach respects the mystery of God because it refuses to say too much or too little about His reasons for evil.

2. Be Mindful of Ethical Theories

Some apologists are unaware that their preferred responses to the argument from evil rest on ethical assumptions about the permissibility of allowing serious harm to befall innocent victims for the good of others. The irony is that apologists usually adhere to a deontological moral framework that prescribes a deep respect for the claims of individuals – notably, their right not to be used as mere means for the benefit of others. This has immediate consequences for theodicy because it is not enough that God allow innocent suffering for outweighing goods that could not have been secured in any better way; it must also be true that God secures some outweighing benefit for the victim, as compensation for the harm, since otherwise God is made out to be a utilitarian! As you may have suspected, the task of satisfying the constraints of a deontological moral framework is a lot harder than for a utilitarian framework. This is especially true for theodicies that appeal to the goods of free will in contexts which secure little or no benefit to the victims of horrendous suffering – e.g. child torture. Now, for obvious matters of practicality, my advice is not that apologists publicly defend all the ethical presuppositions behind their arguments. Rather, they need to be aware of them and be ready to defend them. For more information on what an ethically informed theodicy would look like, read my three articles here.

3. Avoid Reductionism

It is fairly standard in apologetic circles to distinguish between the intellectual and existential problems of evil, if for no other reason than to limit the scope of one’s arguments. However, we need to show more empathy and pastoral concern about the risks of treating such an emotionally explosive topic with the cool detachment of a logician. My advice to apologists is as follows: first, remind your audience that you are not trying to use slick, philosophical techniques to explain away the scandal of evil or to dismiss the fact that many of them are suffering. Offer empathy and understanding to your audience first, and be sincere about it! But secondly, warn your audience of the dangers of reductionism – of reducing evil to something less than it is. As an existential issue, evil is a reality that cannot be fully captured, described, or addressed in intellectual terms. It is a reality to be fought against and counteracted by the forces of love and compassion, not merely argued about. But by emphasizing the existential aspect of evil, we must not ignore or exclude the intellectual component and thereby reduce evil to something only of personal concern. We are not forced to choose between the existential and the intellectual: both are real and relevant.

4 thoughts on “3 Tips for Apologists on the Problem of Evil”

  1. Good post. Your first point I think is particularly evident in the discussions I’ve seen – they either say it’s all explainable, or else none of it is. Neither approach is terribly credible, though, and leaves those who might believe but are struggling with little to support them in their struggles.

    You may be interested I’m in the middle of a three-part post on the Problem of Evil at the moment (third part hopefully out in the next couple of days on the most challenging elements, for which indeed I won’t have fully satisfactory answers), although my focus is mostly on the fallacies within the problem of evil argument itself rather than a philosophical or apologetic approach.

    1. I took a look at your three posts on the problem of evil. I agree that free will and learning compassion for others are among the reasons the theistic God might have for allowing suffering, and that these reasons are not intended to be a comprehensive theodicy. I’m curious if the Mormon concept of God, which you appear to subscribe to, requires that He be omnipotent, since if not, that would significantly improve your resources for theodicy (e.g. some evils happen because God lacks the power to prevent them). I’ve met some Mormons who are monotheists in the traditional sense, and others who believe in an infinite past of gods begetting other gods, etc. Which do you subscribe to?

  2. Thanks Thomas. We believe that God is omnipotent. So God could choose to remove suffering, but as per my posts it would, in fact, frustrate His purposes for us if He were to do so.

    In relation to God’s own “past” (not the right word as we also believe “time is only measured unto man”, but you get the idea…), I don’t think that the Church actually has an official doctrine on the subject, although most active members of the LDS faith would subscribe to God himself having a father, who is His God, etc. For my own part, although I would probably agree with that, I don’t really think about it much as I don’t consider it relevant to me. There is only one God I need to worship, along with His Son.

    Thanks again

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