The Problem of Evil: Part One

The task of reconciling the evil in this world with the goodness of God and his creation belongs to a branch of Christian theology called Theodicy. This task has been exacerbated in the past century and half by evolutionary theory that makes us acutely aware of the long-ages past filled with animal suffering. Developing a theodicy is of particular interest to the Christian theologian who seeks to make Christianity credible in the mental environment and requires the analytical tools of the Philosophy of Religion.[1]

The need for a theodicy is directly proportional to the force of the Problem of Evil (POE). Part One of this essay will therefore briefly survey different articulations of the POE and strategies that seek to explain or refute the force of those arguments. In Part Two, I will develop a framework for my own theodicy.

The Logical Problem of Evil

The logical POE has endured throughout the centuries until recent years. Its goal is to show that God does not exist. It is best put forth by David Hume, “Is he [God] 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?”[2] From this the following premises can be articulated.

1)       An all-powerful and all-loving God exists.
2)       Evil exists.

It is claimed by the proponent of the logical POE that both these premises are incompatible. Alvin Plantinga’s work has significantly developed discussion on the problem such that today it is largely considered by philosophers to be solved.[3] First he points out that the hidden assumptions needed to draw out an explicit contradiction are not necessarily true and their proof is a load far too heavy to bear. These hidden premises are the following.

3)       If God is all-powerful, then he can create any world he desires.
4)       If God is all-loving, then he prefers a world with less evil than the actual world.

Secondly, he provides reasons why we should consider both (3) and (4) as possible[4] – reasons which we shall explore in responding to Paul Draper and Christopher Southgate. Thirdly, he provides a fifth premise that shows that (1) and (2) are actually consistent. This premise is as follows.

5)  God could not[5] have created a world that had so much good as the actual world but had less evil, both in terms of quantity and quality; and, moreover, God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil that exists.[6]

The Probabilistic Problem of Evil

The probabilistic POE is more difficult to dispel. This argument admits there is no logical contradiction between (1) and (2), but submits that their compatibility is extremely unlikely. It seeks to show that God’s existence is not impossible, but improbable given the amount of evil and suffering in the world. Three considerations are available that offset the force of this argument.

First, probabilities should always be assessed with respect to the background knowledge. If evil were to be taken in isolation, then the theist could freely admit that it provides grounds for the improbability of God’s existence. However, the theist should insist that evil be assessed relative to the full scope of evidence for God’s existence. Second, we are not in any position to know or assess if God has no morally sufficient reason for permitting the evils in the world. God’s foreknowledge extends perfectly into the distant future, while we are limited creatures who can only guess at the ripples effects any purported evil will accomplish in time. Third, there are certain Christian doctrines that render the compatibility of evil and God’s existence more probable.

That is to say, Pr(Evil/God & Other Christian doctrine) > Pr(Evil/God). William Lane Craig explicates four such doctrines. First, that the purpose of this life is not human happiness, but the knowledge of God. Second, humans are in a state of rebellion against God. Third, God’s purposes do not cease with the grave but are eternal. Fourth, the knowledge of God is an incommensurable good.[7]

The External Problem of Evil

These previous two arguments are internal[8] and have largely been abandoned. However, an external POE remains. This argument argues that God’s existence[9] and the existence of gratuitous evil are incompatible. Although the Christian theist is not committed to the premise that gratuitous evil exists, the objector will nevertheless try to show in an evidential fashion that it is true that gratuitous evil exists. (This is where evolutionary theory and a long primordial history of the world enter into our discussion, for with these the amount of evil and suffering in the world is dramatically increased.) The considerations given to answer the probabilistic POE will equally apply to natural evil as it does to moral evil.[10]

Paul Draper, an atheist philosopher at Purdue University, has used evolutionary theory as evidence to support his POE argument. Taking Theism (T) and Naturalism (N) as hypotheses, he asks which best explains the amount of evil we observe relative to the evolutionary process (E) and the distribution of pleasure/pain (P). By evaluating the simplicity and the explanatory power of each hypothesis he concludes that Naturalism is more probably true.

Draper’s argument is based on three dubious assumptions.[11] First, that the intrinsic probability of Theism and Naturalism are equal; i.e. Pr(N) = Pr(T). Draper admits his case depends on, “all things being equal,” but this judgment depends on the background evidence that should include any independent reason for or against God’s existence.[12] Second, that the probability of the distribution of pleasure/pain in a world with evolution and Naturalism is greater than a world with evolution and Theism, i.e. Pr(P/E&N) > Pr (P/E&T). However, as creatures with limited knowledge we have no reason to suppose that we are in any epistemic position to accurately weigh the distribution of pain and pleasure with any good that has or may yet result. Third, that the probability of evolution on Naturalism is greater than the probability of evolution is on Theism, i.e. Pr(E/N) > Pr(E/T). However, the evolution of biological organisms is dependent on the existence of biological organisms (B). He is thus actually arguing for Pr(E/N&B) > Pr(E/T&B), which with dubious in light of insights gained from the Intelligent Design community.[13]

In Part Two, while examining the evolutionary theodicy of Christopher Southgate and William Dembski interesting theodicy a framework for my own theodicy will develop.


[1] Plantinga has distinguished a difference between what he calls a “defense” and a “theodicy.” A defense will show that the proponent of the POE fails to carry his objection, while a theodicy will be an attempt at explaining why there is evil and suffering in the world.

[2] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Norman Kemp Smith (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1980), part 10, p. 198.

[3] Evidence of this is its absence in professional philosophical literature. See William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003), 541.

[4] For the logical POE, these reasons need not be plausible. They only need to be possible and the alleged incompatibility is broken.

[5] The “could not” should not be considered a limitation in divine omnipotence, but should be construed as there being no feasible world of free-creatures that God could have created.

[6] William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, (Downers Grove, IL.; InterVarsity Press, 2003) 541.

[7] Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 544-8

[8] An internal argument is a versions of the POE that is formulated with premises (1) and (2), both of which the orthodox Christian community is committed to. It seeks to expose an inner tension within the Christian worldview and thereby show that God’s existence is either impossible or implausible.

[9] God here defined minimally as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being.

[10] I include animal suffering as one aspect of natural evil, which would also include earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes, mass extinction events, pestilence, etc.

[11] The most fundamental flaw in Draper’s argument is his affirmation that gratuitous evil exists with his definition of Naturalism; namely, the affirmation that nothing but the “natural world” exists. (natural world = def. “By the “natural world,” I mean the collection of all existing physical entities (past, present, and future) together with any entities whose existence depends (either causally or ontologically) on the existence of those entities. “Natural” entities are entities that are part of the natural world so defined, and a “supernatural” entity, if there is such a thing, is simply an entity that can affect the natural world despite not being a part of it.”) Evil is however a non-physical property whose existence relies on objective moral values which cannot rightly be assigned to set of things natural. Naturalism does not, in principle, have the explanatory resources for the existence of evil. His argument is then, at bottom, a non-starter by begging the question.

[12] For instance, evidence accrued from Natural Theology or from personal experience.

[13] This would include the origin of complex and highly specified information in biological organisms, as well as the fine-tuning of the conditions necessary for existence of biological life, a life-sustaining planet and universe. See Hugh Ross, “RTB Design Compendium,” Reasons to Believe. Cited 8 November 2010. Online:

The Jesus of History: The First Quest (Part 2)

Historical Background

Most historians credit Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) as the person to initiate the quest for the Historical Jesus.[1] He was a German historian who sought to re-write the story of Jesus’ life in a naturalistic framework rather than the prevalent super-naturalistic one. Reimarus, however, was not without predecessors to lay the groundwork.

Before the Quest

Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) argued against miracles to lay the foundations of a thoroughly naturalistic approach to the study of history. In his view, the historian bought to the study of history the certain knowledge that no miracles have ever occurred, rather than it being his/her task to discover if there has been a miracle. Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), the French philosopher and critic was renowned for his skepticism of historical religious claims. English Deism was also making its mark through such people as Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648), John Tolland (1670-1720), Anthony Collins (1676-1729) – who was a friend and disciple of John Locke, and others whose influence extended into France and Germany in particular.

David Hume (1711-1776), the Scottish philosopher and historian, was composing his arguments against miracles about the same time as Reimarus. He conceded that miracles could occur, but argued that even if one had occurred we should never be entitled to conclude one had. As the Humean in-principle argument “has left an indelible impression on modern biblical scholarship”[2] we shall have to return to discuss further Hume’s arguments. For now it enough to note that as a result of his writing, it is believed that no one is entitled to conclude that a genuine miracle (including fulfilled prophesy) has occurred on the basis of the evidence alone.[3]

The milieu of the Enlightenment conspired to create a situation where a Reimarus was the natural consequence.

The First Quest

Reimarus’ “Fragments” were published posthumously by G. E. Lessing from 1774-8. In them he sharply distinguished between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.[4] For him the Jesus of history was a real person, who lived in Palestine as a teacher of rational, practical religion. This Jesus did not think of himself as divine, but may have thought of himself as a political messiah, teaching the coming of the kingdom of God and Jewish liberation from Roman rule. The Christ of faith on the other hand was an “intentional, deliberate fabrication”[5] created by the disciples who were motivated primarily by financial gain. His hypothesis was that the disciples stole the body of Jesus away from the tomb, invented stories of the resurrection and his imminent return, and attributed to Christ a theological significance Jesus never once claimed for himself. Much later they made Christ the Savior of the world.

The main thrust of this quest was to uncover whom Jesus supposedly really was, without the supernatural legendary accretion that supposedly developed after his death. Many different lives of Jesus were discovered in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, including; the eleven volume work of Karl F. Bahrdt’s Ausfuhrung des Plan und Zwecks Jesu (1784-1792), [6] the four volume work of Karl H. Venturini’s Naturliche Greshichte des grossen Propheten von Nazareth (1800-1802),[7] the two volume work of H. E. G. Paulus’s Das Leban Jesu (1828).[8] Each to varying degrees sought to explain away Jesus’ miracles with clever naturalistic explanations, such as he was a medicinal healer, Lazarus was actually in a coma, and the disciples mistakenly thought Jesus was walking on water when he was actually only walking on a sandbank in the shallows.

It was D. F. Strauss that ended this school of thought with his book Das Laben Jesus, kritishe bearbeitet (1835).[9] He dismissed the miraculous accounts as non-historical on the basis that they were inconsistent internally or else with other equally credible accounts, or contradicted by known natural laws. He went one step further however by rejecting the naturalistic explanations offered for them as well. For him, the shear number of miracles and the contrived explanations given to them, as well as the irreconcilable contradictions and unhamonizable chronologies, could best be explained with the idea that the gospels were never intended to be historical accounts. Rather they were sacred history that were meant to convey deep spiritual truths. The miracles were mythological, developed by Jewish messianic expectation and applied to Jesus for theological reasons. There was a virulent response to Strauss’s views in Germany at the time, but despite this the miracle-working Jesus of history was largely abandoned in academia.

Liberal theology in the latter half of the nineteenth century turned Jesus into merely a great moral teacher who was the model for humanity. Optimism that the man behind the myth could be found persisted until William Wrede published The Messianic Secret (1901). New Testament criticism had developed the two-source hypothesis, and by the turn of the century most scholars accepted the priority of Mark. Wrede succeeding in convincing others that even Mark, the earliest source where the historical Jesus was supposed to be found, was coloured with theological concerns. Thus, a biography of the historical Jesus was deemed futile.

Albert Schweitzer, the historiographer of this interesting period, says historians set out to find the historical Jesus believing they could bring him into our time as Teacher and Savior. He concluded, “He does not stay; he passes by our time and returns to his own.”[10] William Lane Craig writes,

“. . . apparently unaware of the personal element they all brought to their research, each writer reconstructed a historical Jesus after his own image. There was Strauss’s Hegelian Jesus, Renan’s sentimental Jesus,[11] Bauer’s non-existent Jesus,[12] Ritschl’s liberal Jesus, and so forth. To paraphrase George Tyrell, each one looked down the long well of history and saw his own face reflected at the bottom.”[13]

[1] Raymond Martin, The Elusive Messiah: A Philosophical Overview of the Quest of the Historical Jesus (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000) p. 29.

[2] Charles Sanders Peirce, Values in a Universe of Chance: Selected Writings of Charles S. Peirce. Ed. Philip P. Wiener. (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1958) p. 293. Cited by Timothy McGrew in “Miracles,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, forthcoming Spring 2010.

[3] And even if it could be, no one can establish if it was truly a result of super-natural agency. In many circles the miraculous is considered to be outside the domain of historical investigation.

[4] Reimarus: Framents, ed. C. H. Talbert, trans. R. S. Frazer (Philadelphia: Fortress Ress, 1970), See also Reimarus, “The Intention of Jesus and His Disciples” 1788

[5] Ibid., p. 151.

[6] An Explanation of the plans and aims of Jesus

[7] A Non-supernatural History of the Great Prophet of Nazareth

[8] The life of Jesus as the Basis of a Purely Historical Account of Early Christianity

[9] The Life of Jesus Critically Examined

[10] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus: A Critical Strudy of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York: Macmillan, 1957 [1906]), p. 26.

[11] E. Renan, The History of the Origins of Christianity (1863)

[12] Bruno Bauer, Criticism of the Gospels and the History of Their Origin (1850-1851)

[13] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2003) p. 218 See also, George Tyrell, Christianity at the Cross-Roads (London: Longman, Green, 1910) p. 44

The Decade of Atheism?

Nathan Jacobson from

“Radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt concluded 2009 by broadcasting a debate about God between polemicists Michael Shermer and Gregory Koukl, thereby bidding adieu to what he called “The Decade of the New Atheists”. It was indeed a remarkable cultural phenomenon how four atheologians in particular rose to prominence by selling scads of books: Sam Harris with The End of Faith, Christopher Hitchens with god is not Great, Daniel Dennet with Breaking the Spell, and, of course, Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion. But just as noteworthy, perhaps, is the cavalcade of able critics who rose to these challenges to Christian theism. As with the cottage industry of criticism that accompanied Dan Brown’s and then Ron Howard’s The Davinci Code, these broadsides served as provocation for countless apologists. Of course, none of these apologists were remotely as successful as their atheistic rivals in terms of sales. One wonders whether they will slip into oblivion just as Hume survives in philosophy readers, while most of his contemporaneous critics do not. Whatever happens, the swift and mostly scholarly response to this one decade’s worth of the now perennial barrage on Christian theism leaves it an open question whether, in the final analysis, it was the atheists or their counterparts who owned the aughts.”

It’s an intriguing question. Nathan has also posted a list of published books and articles that have responded to the New Atheists. It’s worth checking out and judging the debate for yourself.