The Problem of Evil III

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The Problem of Evil III
If god allows evil for a reason, why wouldn’t he tell us what it is?

“Why have you abandoned us so completely? […] Have you just remained silent like the darkness that surrounds me? Why? At least tell me why.” – Silence, Shusaku Endo


The argument from evil is perhaps the strongest and most compelling argument against God’s existence. It is part of the debate on the problem of evil, the attempt of reconciling God’s existence with that of tremendous suffering and evil. The argument from evil is intended to show that this can’t be done and, since we observe tremendous suffering and evil, God does not exist. Depending on whether the argument involves inductive or deductive reasoning we can distinguish between the evidential and the logical argument from evil.

In a recent blog-post the philosopher Yujin Nagasawa has suggested that this is only the starting point for a new group of arguments from evil. Instead of asking whether the existence of tremendous suffering and evil can be reconciled with God’s existence, we can ask whether the existence of the unsolved first-order problem of evil and puzzlement among theists concerning God’s reason for allowing suffering and evil can be reconciled with God’s existence. Behind this question lies the intuition that God would let us know why he allowed so much evil if he existed and had good reasons for allowing it. Not doing so might cause unnecessary suffering, doubt, and uncertainty among believers.

The Second-Order Arguments from Evil

Let us see whether we can expand on the rough sketch of the higher-order problems of evil laid out in the last section and turn it into proper arguments. Here is the basic idea: Philosophers have turned the problem of evil into an argument from evil by providing reasons to believe that the existence of (apparently) gratuitous suffering and evil cannot be reconciled with God’s existence. Since we observe such suffering and evil – this is the empirical premise – we conclude that God probably does not exist. Now here is the basic thought: Could we not also turn higher-order problem of evil by the same token into a higher-order argument from evil? Let’s give it a try.

Suppose, for the sake of the argument, that there is some good reason why God allows all this apparently gratuitous suffering. Let us call this reason X. We do not know X, for there is no completely convincing theodicy explaining why God allows all this suffering. But even if we knew X now (perhaps because some philosopher found X in the process of writing his dissertation on the problem of evil), most humans which have existed would not have known X. Let us call this empirical fact gratuitous puzzlement. It will serve as our empirical premiss in the second-order argument from evil.

We can now ask: Is gratuitous puzzlement compatible with God’s existence? it seems that a case can be made that it is not. Furthermore, this case works exclusively with premises that the theist is likely to accept.

Here is how: It is an empirical observation that the problem of evil is one of the most compelling arguments against God’s existence. It is probably the argument which has been most effective in converting theists into atheists or agnostics (although I must admit that I do not have any empirical data beyond my own observations and other people’s anecdotes). This does not seem surprising, both the deductive and the inductive version are closely modeled after arguments widely employed in the natural sciences. The dialectic strength of the argument is a problem: If there is some good to be found in believing in God – a view shared by most theists – then it is bad if very strong arguments in favor of atheism remain unanswered by theists for most of human history. Some theists even believe that such a lack of theistic explanation of evil will lead humans, namely those who endorse atheism after careful and honest contemplation on the argument from evil, to spend eternity in hell. And this is surely something God would have an interest to prevent.

But even if a person doesn’t become an atheist due to the argument from evil God might have reasons to prevent his or her gratuitous puzzlement. The existence of such puzzlement will cause an inner tension or cognitive dissonance, doubt, emotional suffering, and could lead her to adopt bad epistemological practices which have spillover effects to other areas of inquiries and thereby cause further problems and potentially even suffering.

In other words: God has an interest to prevent gratuitous puzzlement. And since he is omnipotent he could prevent gratuitous puzzlement. He could presumably do so without revealing his existence, if that is for some reason a problem, by inspiring a clever specimen of the early human race to discover the right theodicy. Hence it is plausible that if God exists, gratuitous puzzlement does not.

Now we can construct the deductive second-order argument from evil:

  1. There is gratuitous puzzlement.
  2. If God exists (and he is benevolent omniscient, and omnipotent) there is no gratuitous puzzlement.
  3. God does not exist.

But one could also construct a probabilistic or Bayesian second-order argument from evil:

  1. P(E)=1
  2. P(H)=0.5
  3. P(E|H)= 0.2
  4. P(H|E)=P(E|H) x P(H)/P(E)=0.1

Where P(E) stands for the prior probability that there is gratuitous puzzlement, P(E|H) for the conditional probability that there is gratuitous puzzlement given the hypothesis that God exists, and P(H) the prior probability of God’s existence. (This is only a rough sketch of the inductive argument and much more needs to be said to justify the probabilities in the argument. For a bit more details on Bayesian arguments from evil see The Problem of Evil II.)

Moving Up the Ladder: Higher-Order Arguments

But the project does not stop here. Suppose there is a solution to the second-order problem of evil and there is a reason why God does not tell us X, his reason for allowing suffering and evil. Let us call this reason Y. We can now ask: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that Y is the reason that he cannot tell us that X is the reason that he has to allow evil? This is the third-order problem of evil, and we may construct deductive and inductive third-order arguments from evil. And so on.


Do these higher-order arguments from evil bring anything new to the table? Do they strengthen the case against God’s existence over and above the ordinary argument from evil? I think they do, for the simple reason that the conjunction

  1. God has reasons for allowing first-order evils and suffering (suffering not resulting from gratuitous puzzlement); God has reasons for allowing second-order and higher-order evils and suffering (suffering resulting from gratuitous puzzlement)

is less probable than

  1. God has reasons for allowing first-order evils and suffering.

This is so because there are conceivable cases where 2 is true without 1 being true but not the other way around. This also shows that theists are not necessarily done with the argument from evil if they can come with a good theodicy. Some theodicies might only be first-order theodicies and show that 2 holds, while doing nothing to show that 1 holds. Hence higher-order arguments from evil raise the bar for a successful theodicy.


I’m grateful to Yujin Nagasawa for feedback on a draft of this post. He also pointed me to the passage in Shusaku Endo’s Silence which inspired his original blog-post.


Nagasawa, Y. (2014). Higher-Order Problems of Evil blog-post on Prosblogion. See also the various comments.

This article has 12 comments

  1. If you believe that God gave us the Bible in order to personally know him, and he is not just some distant all powerful all knowing being, then the Christian scriptures give some answers for the puzzlement problem… Because he has told us, or at least given us some clues.
    1) Soul making. God is using suffering in our lives, and even other’s lives to make us the humans he desires us to be. We can become better people through suffering. (Rom. 8:28)
    2) He has given free will. If he were to stop every evil act humans would be left without choice. (The Adam and Eve Genesis myth.)

  2. As the comments on Prosblogion say, if some people have theodicies they think were revealed by God, the argument isn’t likely to convince them.

    As Bart Ehrman says in his book “God’s Problem”, you don’t find the theodicies which are popular with modern philosophers in the Bible. I do wonder why so many Bible-believers seem so keen on them.

    Romans 8 seems to offer a “Heaven will make up for it” theodicy rather than a soul-making one (e.g. v18).

    Similarly, the Fall story from Genesis 3 does not read as anything like a free-will theodicy. We are not told in the text that the human ability to exercise choice is a good thing.

  3. Timothy Anderson
    Tuesday 12 May 2015, 5:50 pm /

    God does allow evil for a reason, and He HAS told us what that reason is.

    The LDS have this dilemma addressed solidly.

    In short, God allows evil because:

    – God gave us the ability to freely choose good or evil – to commit the most vile acts or the most righteous works

    – If God intervened against evil, then we would not actually be free

    – God gave us an inherent ability to recognize good and evil (conscience)

    – It is important to experience evil so as to understand and appreciate the good and thereby experience and understand joy

    – Life is very short compared with eternity, therefore all suffering caused by the evil of other’s is temporary and provides opportunities for growth

    – God provided a way to escape the evil caused by ourselves

    Excerpts from 2 Nephi, chapter 2:

    “But behold, all things have been done in the wisdom of him who knoweth all things.

    “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so, righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad.

    “And men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil. And the law is given unto men.

    “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy. And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall.

    “And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness.

    “Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

    “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.”

    Excerpts from D&C, sections 121 and 122:

    “Peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high.

    “If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea;

    “If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb;

    “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

    “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

    “Therefore, hold on thy way. Thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less; therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.”

  4. I would love to talk to whoever has commented on this. My name is Travis Pearce. I can be contacted on twitter @travistp11

  5. We are here to be proven/tested/tried.

  6. Timothy, saying that LDS have this dilemma “solved solidly” is a bit of an over statement. Saying that evil/suffering follow from God allowing us “free will” only covers a small fraction of the evil and suffering that go on in the world; totally neglecting the large amounts of evil/suffering that aren’t the products of any agents “free choice”. (As an aside…free will and Mormon theology don’t mix very well together).

    Also, Your second premise seems to be contradicted numerous times in the Book of Mormon where God/Jehovah clearly intervenes against evil. If you need specific references let me know.

    • Timothy Anderson
      Tuesday 19 May 2015, 7:05 pm /


      “[S]aying that LDS have this dilemma ‘solved solidly’ is a bit of an over statement.”

      I don’t think so. The dilemma as stated is, “If god allows evil for a reason, why wouldn’t he tell us what it is?” LDS theology has a cogent, comprehensive, and intellectually satisfying response to this very question. God does indeed ALLOW evil, and he does indeed articulate multiple reasons for allowing it, as I outlined above.

      “Saying that evil/suffering follow from God allowing us “free will” only covers a small fraction of the evil and suffering that go on in the world; totally neglecting the large amounts of evil/suffering that aren’t the products of any agents “free choice”.

      Regrettably, you have misquoted me. I would indeed assert that all evil is the product of free will. An object without free will cannot commit evil. And from that, it follows that all suffering which is caused by said evil is also a product of the evil-doer’s free will. However, I never said that all suffering is the result free will. Much, if not most, suffering is an inherent part of the mortal condition. Disease, death, natural disasters and so forth, are examples of suffering which require no evil act.

      “(As an aside…free will and Mormon theology don’t mix very well together).”

      Of course you will not be surprised when I assert that nothing could be further from the truth.

      When God placed the first man and first women on Earth, “God commanded [them], saying: Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat, But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee; but, remember that I forbid it.”

      All subsequent commandments and doctrines come with the same terms: “Nevertheless, thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given until thee; but, remember that I forbid it.” We are ALWAYS free to accept, or to reject — to obey, or to disobey. We have free will with every aspect of revealed theology. And regardless of whether we accept or reject, we are not free from the consequences of our choices for good or ill. And all of us will reject and disobey at one point or another. Fortunately, God has granted a space and a time to avoid the negative consequences by realigning ourselves to God. We are free. There is no compulsion. Most negative consequences can be avoided if we are wise. But if not, we will reap what we sow.

      “Also, Your second premise seems to be contradicted numerous times in the Book of Mormon where God/Jehovah clearly intervenes against evil. If you need specific references let me know.”

      Thank you for offering to instruct me on my belief system.

      I will clarify my statement from “If God intervened against evil, then we would not actually be free” to “If God were to intervene to prevent any agent from committing evil acts, then we would not actually be free.”

      I concur that God does intervene against evil in at least the following ways:
      – God sends forth his word through preaching to persuade men and women to turn from their evil ways, thus preventing future evil.
      – God will occasionally intervene to blunt the effects of evil by forewarning those who would be the target of said evil, or by sending the Comforter to enable those impacted by evil to bear it well.

      But God allows evil and does not act in a coercive manner to prevent an agent from committing an evil act any more than God intervenes in a coercive manner to compel an agent to commit righteous works.

      Thank you for allowing me to clarify.

  7. I think it’s silly that hardly any of your readers used the word “suffering” in their replies.

    Is sensory input evil or good? Is it yucky? Is it a source of trauma or nostalgia? There is nothing inherently evil in suffering. Our bodies, our physiology, is from the ground up equipped to process and weather suffering. If we do not expose ourselves to enough legitimate attacks on our immune systems as children, we may develop allergies. We have injections of morphine to regulate the bodies use of pain to signal our conscious mind. We suffer because THINGS HAPPEN. Good things… bad things.

    Suffering is demonstrably and unequivocally not a producer of evil. Suffering has no motivation. BUT evil may produce suffering. Evil may produce good. Evil may be regarded as only those things sinful, or the label of sin may be seen as wholly irrelevant or outmoded.

    Ask yourself if this definition of evil covers most cases of evil you remember:

    “It is the things which are inefficient or hindering in the furthering of mankind , which ultimately degrades the work of art that God has set in motion. Ultimately a society of people of flawless morals would propel human progress great leaps forward; there are no accidental evils.”

    To elaborate on those last five words. You and your capabilities are the sum of your actions and interactions. Nothing is free, something/someone payed a price.

  8. the dark simply cannot exist without the light. In addition, the christian scripture is way off the mark in its portrayal of good v evil. It describes having to continually battle the dark, when it is much easier to simply manage it. Dark Management features heavily in the kabbalah, and considering the kabbalah is the spirituality of over a third of the multiverse i suggest that is a good place to start. Any book by Will Parfitt on this subject would help anyone.

    But coming back to christian scripture, much of it has been designed to weigh us down, and it has been doctored in such a way to keep vibration low, after all the LIG in reLIGion comes from LIGATURE, to bind. The scripture encourages a battle with the dark, when its much easier to manage it, and there is an amazing selection of things one can use to do this….. MORE THAN CO-INCIDENCE though that the scripture plagiarizes all those tools that can be used to do this such as magick and divination, as the purveyors of christianity dont want you using those to unlock your full potential, cos when you do it gives you some god given gifts to not only manage the dark but to see through BS; Magick and Divination are as god given as living and breathing, they wouldn.t work otherwise.

    peace x

  9. Sorry to say but for all you’ve written, the average theist would simply reply, “God is testing our faith.” They’d explain that we have a choice to choose evil actions over good, and by choosing evil we are proving our lack of faith and committing sin and therefore going to hell/whatever. I don’t think this argument often helps make theists into atheists.

  10. Faith stop gratuitous puzzlement, if you try to avoid faith (here even in your arguments), you get gratuitous suffering among other things.

  11. No one commenting in this thread is experiencing gratuitous suffering or has experienced anything like it. The human capacity for joy and suffering is not balanced. There is suffering that will make a man beg to die before the hour is out. This man has just scratched the tip of the suffering abyss. Some people are simply cursed with this kind of suffering from the moment they were conceived.

    Theists have to come up with all kinds of convoluted nonsense theories to explain this away, why an all loving and all powerful god would allow this, when the alternative is perfectly straightforward. High order cognition as an attribute of humans is just coincidence. We inherit the rest of our animal nature from our relatives in the animal kingdom, bilateral symmetry, dna, hairy skin, body plan, 5 senses, sexual reproduction, and boundless capacity for suffering. No prevarication needed.

    In fact, nature does not really allow much gratuitous suffering because unlike humans, she is not concerned with prolonging the lives of individuals despite grueling injury and illness. Humans uniquely do this because we are weak and afraid.