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Modern divine command theorists say that God’s commands flow from his essential nature. Since God is loving, we can know that he would never command horrible things, like the torture of a small child.

On the other hand, nearly all theists believe that God allows evil things to happen while simultaneously accepting the claim that God would prevent any gratuitous instance of evil. In other words, theists are committed to the following principle:

(E) Every instance of evil that occurs is such that either (a) its occurrence is necessary to prevent the occurrence of something equally bad or worse, or else (b) its occurrence is necessary to bring about some greater good.

If there is any instance of evil that does not satisfy either (a) or (b) (or both), then it is gratuitous. A perfectly loving God would eliminate any unnecessary evil.

Thus, what a theist believes is that if a person suffers, it is better that they suffered than had they not suffered because either (a) their suffering was logically required to prevent something worse from happening, or else (b) their suffering was logically required to bring about some greater good.

Suppose I have a close friend or family member who is addicted to heroin. He comes to me broke and suffering from severe withdrawals because he has been unable to purchase the drug or acquire it through other means. He asks to borrow some money and it is obvious to me that he intends to use the money to buy more heroin. Now, I submit that the right thing to do is to refuse to give him the money. I should do this even though I know that if my friend does not get his fix, he will continue to suffer greatly as his withdrawal symptoms get worse. This is because it would be better for my fried to go through the withdrawal on the path to losing his addiction than to relieve his suffering temporarily by feeding the addiction. That is, I should allow my friend to suffer because it is in his best interests to suffer (even if he doesn’t agree that it is). For the purposes of this discussion, the important uphsot of this example is that it is not the case that if I love someone, then I will prevent any instance of their suffering that I can prevent. However, we can even go further. Indeed, it is plausible that the best thing for me to do in this instance is to take my friend to a detox clinic where he can endure his withdrawal symptoms in a controlled environment. That is, the best thing to do is something that will cause my friend more suffering.

So, in general, it is not the case that if I love someone, I want to prevent every instance of their suffering. Rather, what I want is what is best for them. And, in at least some cases, what is best for them is that they suffer. Now, typically what is best for a person is that their suffering is minimized (at least that is what I think we have most reason to believe; I am not sure that a theist can accept this claim), but at least sometimes, a loving person will allow those they love to suffer.

Here is what is important for the present argument: That God is loving does not imply that he will want to prevent all suffering; it implies that he wants what is best for us. This is what underlies principle (E).

Now, if we are not in a position to know whether, for any instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, the suffer is better off than she would have been had she not suffered, then we are not in a position to know whether a loving God would command torture.

Atheists typically believe that cases of apparently gratuitous suffering really are cases of gratuitous suffering. The suffering endured by a dying cancer patient appears gratuitous. There does not appear to be any greater good such the the patient’s suffering is necessary to bring about that good; nor does there appear to be any evil equal to or greater than the patient’s suffering that the suffering is necessary to prevent. The atheist says that things are exactly as they appear; such an instance of suffering is gratuitous. The theist, however, has to believe that appearances are deceiving. The theist believes that the patient’s suffering is not gratuitous because he believes that God exists and that God is loving.

Given this, what reason can a theist give for believing that God would not command the torture of an infant? That God loves the infant? Well, we just saw that, in general, being loving does not entail wanting to prevent every instance of suffering. Rather, it entails wanting what is best for the beloved. So that God loves the child is not evidence that God does not want the child to be tortured. If the torture of the child will bring about what is best, then God, being loving, will command it.

So, what the theist needs is a reason for thinking that it is never best that children be tortured. Without that, we cannot know that God would not command the torture of an infant.  But can the theist provide such a reason? I don’t see how. If theists are willing to believe that the cancer patient’s suffering is not gratuitous, that somehow the world is better off for that instance of severe pain, how can theists consistently maintain that they know that an instance of infant torture is gratuitous?

It is common for theists, during discussions of the problem of evil, to point out that, given our epistemic limitations, we are not in a position to know that God does not have reasons for failing to prevent the many horrendous and apparently gratuitous evils in our world (the name for this position is Skeptical Theism). Well, the same would seem to apply to any instance of child torture. If our epistemic situation is so limited that we cannot know that God does not have reasons for permitting the slaughter of children, then it must be so limited that we cannot know whether child torture is sometimes necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent something equally bad or worse. Thus, the theist cannot know that a loving God will not command the torture of infants.


Nearly two decades ago, Alvin Plantinga developed an argument against naturalism (the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, EAAN) that purports to show that naturalism and evolution are incompatible. You can find a version of this argument, as well as Plantinga’s responses to several objections in this paper. 

It has become commonplace for apologists to lean heavily on this argument and to suggest that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of human cognitive powers. William Lane Craig makes such an argument in this op-ed article. It should be noted that Plantinga’s argument, if correct, shows only that naturalism together with evolutionary theory cannot both be true; one or the other can be maintained, but not both together. However, given that evolutionary theory is the most widely accepted naturalistic account of human origins and development, it has become commonplace for the argument to be stated more simply as the claim that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.

As readers of this blog might know, I have no interest in defending metaphysical naturalism. I suspect that it is probably true, but I grant the possibility that it is false and I see no reason to defend it against all comers. Naturalism is best understood as a methodological commitment; we should try to explain as much as we can, as best as we can without having to resort to phenomena that transcend the natural world. In general, commitment to any metaphysical account of ultimate reality is more of a hindrance to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom than a help. Since the state of our knowledge about reality is characterized by a great deal of ignorance and half-understood theory, I think that it is best to be humble.

So, my interest in Plantinga’s argument has to do not with whether it defeats naturalism, but in its use as an argument for the existence of God. Plantinga thinks, as do many apologists, that theism can account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties. As with many beliefs of a religious nature, I think that this one is the result of a failure of imagination. In the article “Naturalism Defeated” (linked to above), Plantinga says this:

Now according to traditional Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) thought, we human beings have been created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that he created us with the capacity for achieving knowledge—knowledge of our environment by way of perception, of other people by way of something like what Thomas Reid calls sympathy, of the past by memory and testimony, of mathematics and logic by reason, of morality, our own mental life, God himself, and much more. (pp 2-3)

But is it true that we should expect God to create creatures with reliable cognitive faculties? Why would we think so? If God had a good reason to create humans with unreliable faculties, then wouldn’t he do that? Perhaps there is some greater good that God can only realize by creating creatures with deficient cognitive faculties. How can we know that there isn’t? I suppose it is open to the theist to insist that God does not have a reason to create humans with unreliable cognitive faculties, but how would they know? It is certainly possible that God does have such a reason and that, given our epistemic position, we are unable to know what this reason is. I conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to suppose that God does not have such a reason. If he does have such a reason, then, if theism is true, our cognitive faculties are not reliable. Thus, theism does not account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.

Perhaps you notice an affinity between the above argument and a certain kind of response to the problem of evil known as skeptical theism. Skeptical theism maintains that, given our epistemic situation, there is no reason to believe that we are in a position to know what reasons God might or might not have to engage in certain activities (such as, for example, refraining from saving children from tornadoes or deranged gunmen). Because we cannot know what reasons God might have, we are not in a position to say with confidence that God does not have a reason for permitting any instance of evil, no matter how gratuitous that particular evil might seem to us.

[Here is a very good discussion between three Christian philosophes about the problem of evil. They begin discussing skeptical theism at about the 16 minute mark.]

Regardless of whether a particular theist adopts a robust version of skeptical theism, many, if not most, agree that at some point in a response to the problem of evil, we will have to rely on the fact that we cannot discern all of God’s reasons. But if it is true that God might have reasons beyond our ken for engaging in some activity, then how can we know that God does not have good reasons for creating creatures with unreliable cognitive powers?

It is important to note that even theists who do not espouse skeptical theism are faced with a problem here. How does the theist get around this inference: For all we know God has very good reasons for wanting human cognitive powers to be less than reliable. Thus, if theism is true, for all we know, human cognitive faculties are not reliable.

In response to the question that I posed at the end of my last post we might point to the (alleged) inherent contradiction in supposing that a God would issue commands for us that he himself is not willing to fulfill. It would not be reasonable for God to expect us to love our neighbors if he is cruel or callous. From a Christian perspective, at least, the message of universal love found in the gospels is incompatible with the supposition that God does not love all of humanity.

I think that this response is hopeless. Even granting that the gospels do contain exhortations to universal love of mankind, I don’t see this as evidence that God himself exemplifies this expansive benevolence. There are many reasons that a cold and callous despot might want his subjects to love and respect one another: it is more conducive to internal peace which is a necessary condition for a well-functioning economy, not to mention the fact that a loving polulace might be less likely to revolt. Obviously and all-powerful being need not worry about revolution and perhaps would not be overly concerned about economics, but he may be worried about the fact that constant fighting between his peoples means that fewer people will be focused on worshipping him.  It is often man’s inhumanity to man that causes us to question God’s existence (e.g., Elie Wiesel began to lose faith because of his experience in the Holocaust).

In short it is not a contradiction to suppose that God might exhort his creation to love each other while he is himself unconcerned with our individual welfare. His reasons may be completely self-centered; he wants a stable population to worship him and fulfill his wishes; and a populace that is committed to trying to live up to the ideal of universal love will be more likely to satisfy God’s desires.

The supposition that God’s commands should match (or flow necessarily from) his nature is, I think, unmotivated. It is reasonable on the assumption that God is good; since a good being would not expect things from us that contradict his own nature. But in the context of this investigation, specifically the attempt to find reasons for believing that God is good, this assumption begs the question.

Premise 1: If God is omnipotent, then he is able to prevent every instance of evil.

Premise 2: If God is omniscient, then he is aware of every instance of evil.

Premise 3: If God is omni-benevolent, then he wants to prevent every instance of evil

Thus, 4: If God exists then he would prevent every instance of evil.

Premise 5: There are a great many instances of evil.

Conclusion: There is no omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent God.

During class discussion of this argument, a couple of students pointed out, correctly, that God does not come across as omni-benevolent in the Bible. One very bright student said that he never was told that God is all-loving and asked why it matters whether he is or not. “Ah” I said, “If God is not omni-benevolent, then why should we worship him? Can a being that commits or allows evil be worthy of worship?” Standard question, stock response.

But then the student says, “We worship him because we want to get into heaven.”

“So it doesn’t matter whether God is uncaring or callous, we should worship him for the reward?”


I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was surprised by this answer. “Isn’t that self-centered in a way that completely contradicts the message of the gospels?” I asked.

“Well we care about others and want them to be forgiven also, so that is why we spread Jesus’ message.”

A wonderful solution to the problem of evil. The conclusion is fully embraced, there is no omni-God; but there is a God who created us, expects certain things from us, and can punish us for failing to live up to his expectations. So why don’t more theists take this way out?

Here is the video clip (low-quality version) that I showed my students. What does it have to do with philosophy?

I have long felt that a genuine religious sensitivity compels a person to doubt the existence of God (more precisely, to doubt the truth of theism).  This conclusion is based upon a number of beliefs that I have about the nature of religious experience, some of which I have articulated in this blog, and all of which may just be idiosyncratic to me.  In any event:

The core of religious experience for a theist is developing a personal relationship with God.  Someone who believes in a God who does not concern Him/Herself with our welfare and with whom it is not possible to have a meaningful personal relationship is not a theist.  I suppose deism would be the best term for such a set of beliefs.  The theist is committed to the view that God is a person who, in addition to being all-powerful, etc., is all-loving and thus wants each of us to experience His divine love.

Those who are not moved by the problem of evil have always struck me as callous, unwilling to see the intensity and boundless extent of the pain and suffering that has been experienced over the course of human history (and why stop there, the dinosaurs must have suffered tremendously) and that continues to be experienced every day.  This callousness often hides an appalling self-centeredness; what makes me immune from the suffering of others is their distance, emotional or otherwise, from me.  So long as things are relatively stable and good in our own lives, we rarely have occasion to question those beliefs, commitments, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment.

In contrast to the wealthy and self-satisfied believer whose share of suffering is no greater than the average citizen of the 21st century industrialized world is his fellow citizen, equally comfortable in the material sense, whose life has recently been shaken by tragedy, the loss of a spouse or a child perhaps, to such an extent that her own faith in an all-loving Father in Heaven cannot withstand the pain.  This latter person betrays a (by no means unusual) self-focus in that while she has witnessed from afar the devastation caused by the loss of a loved-one, seen others as profoundly affected as she now finds herself, that suffering of others, which, she would acknowledge, vastly surpasses her own at least in quantity, has never come close to shaking her religious convictions.

This is not to say that every theist is self-centered, only that it is easy to allow one’s own self-focus to affect one’s religious beliefs.  And this brings us to very important point: all major religions seem to agree that excessive self-focus is the cause of many of life’s evils.  Perhaps Buddhism is most explicit about this, to such an extent that the aim of the spiritual life for a Buddhist can be identified with the extinction of the self (which, it is claimed, was always illusory anyway).  Jesus was also very clear, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I often wonder whether many people actually stop to think about the implications of this commandment and I also wonder whether there has ever been a person alive who loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself.  In any event, Jesus is telling us that we must radically re-orient our lives; that, among other things, we must give as much concern to the suffering of others as we do to our own.  Similar points about the need to relinquish excessive attachment to the self can be made concerning Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.

So many, if not most, of the world’s religious traditions claim that spiritual progress is made only when we abandon our (very natural) narrow self-centered perspectives.  My contention is that feeling the real force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon, if only partially and temporarily, one’s normal self-centered perspective.  If I were to feel  the pain and loss of others as if it were my own, how could my faith in God survive?  Of course one could not actually endure this; if I were to experience the suffering of even a very few others, I would most likely not want to go on living.  But appreciating the power of the problem of evil does not require that I feel the pain of all of those countless others, but to simply acknowledge it and realize that, if we could feel it, it would indeed be incapacitating.

How, having acknowledged this, can I then return to my faith in an all-loving God?  To continue to reap the benefits of a relationship (real or imagined) with the all-powerful creator would be the height of selfishness, which is the exact opposite attitude that religious belief ought to inspire.

Sometimes the problem is presented in such a way that it seems that it is the shear existence of evil, any evil no matter how small, that creates the problem for theism.  And, I suppose that naively we may think that a universe created by an all-powerful, all-loving, and perfect being would have to itself be perfect and thus one in which evil is non-existent.  If we are at all swayed by this intuition, then it might appear that the task for the theist is to explain why God would allow any amount of evil to infect His creation.

I think that the whatever argumentative force the free will defense has results from this way of understanding the problem of evil.  To most minds, it is at least as obvious that free will is of tremendous value (and that thus an omni-benevolent God would grant it to His creation) as it is that God is opposed to evil.  Granting this, it is a short step to the realization that free will necessarily entails that (at least some) people will (at least sometimes) choose to engage in activities that have bad consequences.  Thus, God, if He is indeed all-loving, cannot help but create a world in which evil is at least a possibility (since if He is to create conscious beings at all, He must, out of concern for their value, grant them the option of choosing to do wrong).

So long as we understand the problem of evil narrowly, as the need to explain why God would create a less than perfect world, the free-will defense gives us a plausible resolution of the problem.  However, a different and stronger version of the problem points not to the existence of evil in general but to specific evils (van Inwagen would call this the distinction between global arguments and local arguments).  When we consider certain cases of horrible evil (especially cases involving children) it is far more difficult to explain why God would allow them to occur.  Sure children are often the victims of (bad) free choices but, given the arguments of my two previous posts, God can prevent much of the negative consequences of an act without interfering with freedom.

Now if we assumed that God needs to prevent all evil, then the level of intervention required would, as Dilley suggested, undercut the value of freedom.  But if instead we believe that the real problem of evil is to explain why God would not prevent horrific cases of evil (such as the holocaust, the slaughter of innocent children, etc.), then, since preventing these instances would not involve constant intervention (and thus not undermine human freedom) the free will defense seems entirely impotent as a solution.  God could have prevented the suffering and deaths of many of the victims of history’s great villains without infringing upon freedom.

I think that the real strength of the problem of evil lies in its appeal to such horrible instances of evil (think of examples like Ivan Karamazov’s description of the child’s encounter with the Turks). Against this understanding, the free will defense is ultimatey a non-starter as a solution to the problem of evil.

In 1982 Frank Dilley published a response to Boer’s argument in a paper called “Is the Free Will Defense Irrelevant?”  The suggestion that God might intervene with coincidence miracles to prevent evil intentions from producing negative effects, Dilley called the “Boer Reform.”  If God adopted the Boer Reform, then whenever God sees that someone will attempt to cause harm, He would intervene so as to prevent that someone’s intention from culminating in the harmful consequence(s).  And, as Boer had suggested, this need not entail any infringement of free will.  Using the example from Part I, when God diverts the path of the bullet, He is in no way interfering with any of Jones’ choices.

Nonetheless, Dilley argued that the Boer Reform, if adopted, would seriously undermine the value of freedom.  He listed several consequences of the Reform, but the most important of which is that the Reform would rob attempting to bring about either good or evil of its very sense.  The Boer Reform would entail that no person would be capable of deliberately bringing about evil (since God will always prevent any negative consequences of our choices).  As Dilley says, “Even the fool would learn after his hundredth attempt that is silly to intend harm, that the deck is stacked against him.  To be unable to succeed, then, deprives trying of its point and makes it nonsensical.” (358)  Dilley claims that this is also true of attempts to bring about good; since we would soon learn that nothing but good can come of our intention, it would be pointless to try to bring about good.  In addition, the Reform would entail a drastic revision of the notion of a law of nature (since God would be constantly intervening) and it would so sever consequences from intentions that we could no longer think of ourselves as interacting agents.

I think that Dilley is correct (with a few small caveats that I will leave for another time) that the Boer Reform, assuming that it required constant intervention on God’s part, would result in a drastic devaluation of freedom.  However, this is true only given that the Reform requires God to intervene in every case in which someone tries to bring about bad consequences.  If instead, He only intervened to prevent the most awful kinds of evil, while He would be intervening often, the level of intervention would not, I think, severely undermine the value of freedom.  If, for example, He intervened to prevent the severe suffering of children, this would not rob trying to bring about harm of its very sense because, even though we would not be able to cause tremendous harm to children, there would remain ample opportunity to try (and succeed) to bring about other harms.

Whether we expect an omni-benevolent God should intervene to prevent all evil or just the more horrendous evils depends a great deal on how we understand the problem of evil.  This will be the focus of my next post.

The Free Will Defense (FWD) makes two substantial claims: First, that God, being omni-benevolent, must grant humans freedom of the will.  [This can be argued for by, e.g., showing that a world in which humans have free will is better, all things considered, than one in which they don’t since it allows for the possibility of genuine moral goodness (this is, roughly, Plantinga’s take).]  Second, having granted us free will, God has necessarily allowed the possibility of moral evil (that is, evil that results from the choices of free agents).  The possibility of moral evil is thus a necessary consequence of the granting of free will (which, if we follow Plantinga, is necessary for the possibility or moral goodness).  All that is required is the assumption that some people will sometimes choose to bring about bad consequences and we have made God’s existence (and omni-benevolence) consistent with the actual presence of moral evil.

Mackie famously took issue with this last additional assumption, claiming that an omnipotent God could create free beings who are so-constituted that they always choose the good.  This, in turn, leads to the wonderful realm of trans-world depravity (in other words, right into Plantinga’s wheelhouse).  But there is an objection to the FWD that is more to the point and much easier to articulate and defend.

In 1978 Stepehn Boer published an article entitled “The Irrelevance of the Free Will Defense” in which he argued that (in case you couldn’t have guessed), the Free Will Defense is irrelevant to the problem of evil.  His point was that God need not interfere with anyone’s free choices in order to prevent any evil that may result from such choices.  Thus, suppose that Jones wants to kill his business rival Smith.  Jones drives to Smith’s house late one evening, breaks in, and finds Jones asleep in his bedroom.  Jones pulls out his Walther PPK and fires.  God need not interfere with any of Jones’ freely made choices in order to prevent Smith’s death.  He need only intervene, at the last moment, to deflect the bullet so that it does not kill Smith. We can extrapolate this pattern of intervention to cover most, if not all, cases in which a person chooses to bring about harm; it seems likely that in most cases God can find some way to prevent the harm without violating anyone’s free will.

In my next post I will discuss Frank Dilley’s response to Boer’s argument.

Jason Thibodeau

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