Previously, I inquired on What are Christian responses to the Logical Problem of Evil?. Now, I would like to shift the focus to Christian responses to the Evidential Problem of Evil. For an in-depth exploration of this argument, a comprehensive article is available at The Evidential Problem of Evil | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

I'll provide a short version with the gist of William Rowe's formulation of the argument, followed by a longer version with multiple excerpts from the original article for those seeking deeper insights.

Short version

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. (Rowe 1979: 336)

Longer version

Evidential arguments from evil seek to show that the presence of evil in the world inductively supports or makes likely the claim that God (or, more precisely, the God of orthodox theism) does not exist. A variety of evidential arguments have been formulated in recent years, but here I will concentrate on one very influential formulation, namely, that provided by William Rowe. Rowe’s version of the evidential argument has received much attention since its formal inception in 1978, for it is often considered to be the most cogent presentation of the evidential problem of evil. James Sennett (1993: 220), for example, views Rowe’s argument as “the clearest, most easily understood, and most intuitively appealing of those available.” Terry Christlieb (1992: 47), likewise, thinks of Rowe’s argument as “the strongest sort of evidential argument, the sort that has the best chance of success.” It is important to note, however, that Rowe’s thinking on the evidential problem of evil has developed in significant ways since his earliest writings on the subject, and two (if not three) distinct evidential arguments can be identified in his work. Here I will only discuss that version of Rowe’s argument that received its first full-length formulation in Rowe (1978) and, most famously, in Rowe (1979), and was successively refined in the light of criticisms in Rowe (1986), (1988), (1991), and (1995), before being abandoned in favour of a quite different evidential argument in Rowe (1996).

An Outline of Rowe’s Argument

In presenting his evidential argument from evil in his justly celebrated 1979 paper, “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”, Rowe thinks it best to focus on a particular kind of evil that is found in our world in abundance. He therefore selects “intense human and animal suffering” as this occurs on a daily basis, is in great plenitude in our world, and is a clear case of evil. More precisely, it is a case of intrinsic evil: it is bad in and of itself, even though it sometimes is part of, or leads to, some good state of affairs (Rowe 1979: 335). Rowe then proceeds to state his argument for atheism as follows:

  1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. (Rowe 1979: 336)

This argument, as Rowe points out, is clearly valid, and so if there are rational grounds for accepting its premises, to that extent there are rational grounds for accepting the conclusion, that is to say, atheism.

The Factual Premise

Criticisms of Rowe’s argument tend to focus on its first premise, sometimes dubbed “the factual premise,” as it purports to state a fact about the world. Briefly put, the fact in question is that there exist instances of intense suffering which are gratuitous or pointless. As indicated above, an instance of suffering is gratuitous, according to Rowe, if an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented it without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. A gratuitous evil, in this sense, is a state of affairs that is not (logically) necessary to the attainment of a greater good or to the prevention of an evil at least as bad.

Rowe’s Case in Support of the Factual Premise

Rowe builds his case in support of the factual premise by appealing to particular instances of human and animal suffering, such as the following:

E1: the case of Bambi

“In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering” (Rowe 1979: 337).

Although this is presented as a hypothetical event, Rowe takes it to be “a familiar sort of tragedy, played not infrequently on the stage of nature” (1988: 119).

E2: the case of Sue

This is an actual event in which a five-year-old girl in Flint, Michigan was severely beaten, raped and then strangled to death early on New Year’s Day in 1986. The case was introduced by Bruce Russell (1989: 123), whose account of it, drawn from a report in the Detroit Free Press of January 3 1986, runs as follows:

The girl’s mother was living with her boyfriend, another man who was unemployed, her two children, and her 9-month old infant fathered by the boyfriend. On New Year’s Eve all three adults were drinking at a bar near the woman’s home. The boyfriend had been taking drugs and drinking heavily. He was asked to leave the bar at 8:00 p.m. After several reappearances he finally stayed away for good at about 9:30 p.m. The woman and the unemployed man remained at the bar until 2:00 a.m. at which time the woman went home and the man to a party at a neighbor’s home. Perhaps out of jealousy, the boyfriend attacked the woman when she walked into the house. Her brother was there and broke up the fight by hitting the boyfriend who was passed out and slumped over a table when the brother left. Later the boyfriend attacked the woman again, and this time she knocked him unconscious. After checking the children, she went to bed. Later the woman’s 5-year old girl went downstairs to go to the bathroom. The unemployed man returned from the party at 3:45 a.m. and found the 5-year old dead. She had been raped, severely beaten over most of her body and strangled to death by the boyfriend.

Following Rowe (1988: 120), the case of the fawn will be referred to as “E1”, and the case of the little girl as “E2”. Further, following William Alston’s (1991: 32) practice, the fawn will be named “Bambi” and the little girl “Sue”.

Rowe (1996: 264) states that, in choosing to focus on E1 and E2, he is “trying to pose a serious difficulty for the theist by picking a difficult case of natural evil, E1 (Bambi), and a difficult case of moral evil, E2 (Sue).” Rowe, then, is attempting to state the evidential argument in the strongest possible terms. As one commentator has put it, “if these cases of evil [E1 and E2] are not evidence against theism, then none are” (Christlieb 1992: 47). However, Rowe’s almost exclusive preoccupation with these two instances of suffering must be placed within the context of his belief (as expressed in, for example, 1979: 337-38) that even if we discovered that God could not have eliminated E1 and E2 without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse, it would still be unreasonable to believe this of all cases of horrendous evil occurring daily in our world. E1 and E2 are thus best viewed as representative of a particular class of evil which poses a specific problem for theistic belief. This problem is expressed by Rowe in the following way:

  • (P) No good state of affairs we know of is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being’s permitting E1 or E2. Therefore,

  • (Q) It is likely that no good state of affairs is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being in permitting E1 or E2.

P states that no good we know of justifies God in permitting E1 and E2. From this it is inferred that Q is likely to be true, or that probably there are no goods which justify God in permitting E1 and E2. Q, of course, corresponds to the factual premise of Rowe’s argument. Thus, Rowe attempts to establish the truth of the factual premise by appealing to P.

The Inference from P to Q

On what grounds does Rowe think that P is true? Rowe (1988: 120) states that “we have good reason to believe that no good state of affairs we know of would justify an omnipotent, omniscient being in permitting either E1 or E2” (emphasis his). The good reason in question consists of the fact that the good states of affairs we know of, when reflecting on them, meet one or both of the following conditions: either an omnipotent being could obtain them without having to permit E1 or E2, or obtaining them would not morally justify that being in permitting E1 or E2 (Rowe 1988: 121, 123; 1991: 72).

This brings us, finally, to Rowe’s inference from P to Q. This is, of course, an inductive inference. Rowe does not claim to know or be able to prove that cases of intense suffering such as the fawn’s are indeed pointless. For as he acknowledges, it is quite possible that there is some familiar good outweighing the fawn’s suffering and which is connected to that suffering in a way unbeknown to us. Or there may be goods we are not aware of, to which the fawn’s suffering is intimately connected. But although we do not know or cannot establish the truth of Q, we do possess rational grounds for accepting Q, and these grounds consist of the considerations adumbrated in P. Thus, the truth of P is taken to provide strong evidence for the truth of Q (Rowe 1979: 337).

  • 3
    This seems to have the same problem; namely, (2) is not a valid. Correction: it incorrectly assumes the ability to perceive "losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse" and therefore cannot be demonstrated.
    – Matthew
    Feb 12 at 18:52
  • 2
    Given that the reasons for their invalidity are nearly identical, I fail to see a notable difference. In particular, if one were to rewrite both with the axioms fully specified, I am not entirely convinced that the alleged difference in type-of-reasoning would still be present.
    – Matthew
    Feb 12 at 19:01
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    @Matthew (Q) does not deductively follow from (P) precisely because it is not a deductive argument. It is an inductive argument. Just like Einstein's general theory of relativity "does not follow" from all the experimental data that is consistent with it. (P) is stating facts, and the inductive argument claims that these facts seem to point (in an inductive manner) to the conclusion (Q). An inductive argument can be defeated by providing counterexamples.
    – Mark
    Feb 12 at 19:35
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    Why is this not another variation of 1. God is all powerful and can do anything, 2) God must be able to create an infinitely heavy stone 3) If God cannot create that stone or if God cannot lift that stone after creating it, it proves that he is not all powerful and therefore God does not exist. Circular logical nonsense if you ask me! Feb 13 at 11:47
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    #2 is a flawed assumption because the relative value of all temporal experiences, when compared to eternity, rounds to zero. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? From the perspective of an omnipotent and eternal deity, there is no "problem of evil" because on the timeline of infinity, all earthly evils are too trivial to consider.
    – tbrookside
    Feb 15 at 0:11

5 Answers 5


Rowe is critiquing a god that nobody believes in.

The defense of the first premise boils down to "I can't explain this, therefore I'm rational in believing an Omniscient God couldn't explain this either." This is an extraordinarily weak argument. A god who can explain only those things which William Rowe can explain would not be a god worth worshipping. I'm willing to agree with Rowe insofar as he has demonstrated that he is not God.

We don't even countenance this argument when we're talking about capable-but-non-Omniscient experts - e.g. you can't explain the math behind the Big Bang theory therefore you are rational in concluding that no one can??

Even those who don't believe in God put confidence in experts they believe are qualified (have you been on an airplane recently?). Christians believe God is far and away the most qualified expert. Christians are not arguing inductively that God must exist because there's so little pain in the world. Christians believe God exists on separate grounds, and that He has given them reason to trust Him.

Other weaknesses in this argument include:

  • Explanations for this type of suffering have been given. I shared a heartbreaking example of greater scope than Rowe's and responded to it here (I certainly do not deny the pain is real). Explanations for the flood address this kind of question all the time.
  • No good that we know of... How about heaven? (See argument in preceding link) Rowe is tacitly denying the possibility of such an afterlife and thus smuggling in naturalistic presuppositions to argue for a naturalistic worldview. Christians have often asked some form of the question if this awful, momentary experience were the most challenging step in refining your nature to everything God can make you (see 1 John 3:2-3), would you agree to endure it?
  • The strength of Rowe's argument is the emotional reaction it is designed to create. Is this emotional reaction good reason to accept atheism?
  • The evidential problem of evil is greater for Rowe than for theists1. Are the pains/evils he describes objectively wrong/bad/evil? If so, what is the objective standard against which he is measuring? Theists can claim that something is objectively wrong. Atheists can claim something is undesirable or unpopular, but not objectively wrong2. Yet the evidence suggests both theists & atheists believe there are indeed things which are objectively wrong.

1 To claim that defending objective morality is a consistency challenge only for the theist is simply incorrect if the atheist also believes in objective morality.

2 For William Lane Craig's classic takedown of a popular attempt to derive objective morality from naturalism, see here. My video You don't believe in moral relativism may also be of interest.

  • A critique of this answer is available here. Any rebuttals will be appreciated.
    – Mark
    Feb 13 at 2:34
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    @Mark admittedly, I'm not keen to respond to ad hominem. The irony in bringing up emotion may have been too subtle, but it was intentional. Since I've regularly seen atheists criticize theists for appealing to emotion, I think it fair to point out when an atheist makes an appeal to emotion. Feb 13 at 6:52
  • @Mark in the interest of clarity I went ahead and reworded a couple ambiguous sentences and added some citations. Feb 13 at 7:57
  • Another objection: philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/108566/66156. Any thoughts?
    – Mark
    Feb 14 at 14:14
  • Another note: the Evidential Problem of Evil assumes a definition of good/evil based on suffering. While it's also true that explanations could exist for each instance of suffering that optimizes the universe for the least possible suffering, if there is a God that controls morals, His definition of good/evil may not align with Rowe's, causing a misalignment of terms. Hence "a god nobody believes in."
    – Cullub
    Feb 15 at 18:52

Short rebuttal

Correctly discerning whether "prevent[ing] the occurrence of any intense suffering" can be accomplished "without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse" would require an omniscient observer. Therefore, while premise (2) may be correct, (1) cannot be sustained, therefore the conclusion (3) cannot be sustained either.

See What are Christian responses to the Logical Problem of Evil? — in particular, comments concerning point (7) therein — for why (1) might be false.


(P) No good state of affairs we know of is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being’s permitting E1 or E2. Therefore,

(Q) It is likely that no good state of affairs is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being in permitting E1 or E2.

(Emphasis added.) This is simply fallacious; first, because (Q) does not follow from (P), and second, because (P) is itself questionable. Even if we allow (P) to stand, one would still have to show that man's knowledge is adequate to justify (Q) as "likely". As above, man is not omniscient, so...


In a comment on this Answer, you mentioned skeptical theism... which relates, but the real issue is somewhat broader. Where Skeptical Theism questions whether or not we can know God's reasons for permitting evil, those presenting "Problem of Evil" arguments (such as the two under discussion) are necessarily asserting as an axiom a) that we assuredly can know such reasons, and b) that no reason for evil exists. (In fact, many would disagree with Skeptical Theism to the extent of arguing that we can, in at least some cases, discern the reasons why evil is permitted. That is, Skeptical Theism is unnecessarily critical of our capabilities.) Most or all "Problem of Evil" arguments necessarily depend on this axiom... and the axiom is almost never stated. Once recognized, it is obvious that it can't be sustained as an axiom.

Once recognized, we can immediately see that (1) here, and (7) in the other question, both depend on this axiom. (One could argue that (Q) relies on the more specific formulation of Skeptical Theism, but then it's similarly easier to show that, not only does the induction rely on the falsity of Skeptical Theism, it can be shown — again, by demonstrating the falsity of the 'evil has no reason' axiom — that (P) isn't true in the first place; that is, we can postulate reasons why an evil would be permitted.) Thus, while the exact formulation of both arguments may differ, both are either upheld or dismantled by that same axiom.

I'm not going to offer a detailed defense of why the axiom is false here; the other Question already did that. Here, I think it's sufficient to examine how the logical fault in this argument has the same basis as the other. (In a sense, this is a glorified rationale for declaring a Duplicate Question.)

I will, however, take note of the incredible hubris of asserting that evil can serve no purpose; in making that assertion, the fallible human doing so claims to be more knowledgeable than the omniscient God. Not only is such self-elevation typical (and indeed, definitional) of God-denying Humanist philosophy, it is also nothing less than the Original Sin.

  • In other words, skeptical theism.
    – Mark
    Feb 12 at 19:07
  • Very logical Matthew! Feb 12 at 19:13
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    @Mark, the number of people that find the "problem of evil" argument problematical would argue against humans categorically being unable to fathom God's reasoning. (Besides which, "fathom" is the wrong word; God has access to more information, which is not the same as saying that, if we knew everything God knew, His reasoning would still be inscrutable.) But, yes, I think ST (going by what you linked and keeping in mind I only skimmed it) reasonably describes why the atheist's logic with respect to the "problem of evil" is faulty.
    – Matthew
    Feb 12 at 19:22
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    @Mark, put differently, the "problem of evil" necessarily assumes that Skeptical Theism is false. This axiom would need to be justified first before a "problem of evil" argument could be logically argued. (Which goes toward what I claim in the Question comments, that the root of both arguments relies on the same flaw.)
    – Matthew
    Feb 12 at 19:25
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    @ScottH., what you seem to be arguing for is what I would call a "reason", and I think you're actually agreeing with me. If "optimization" requires that some suffering exists, than that is a "reason" to permit said suffering. ST says that this might be the case, but we lack the knowledge and/or discernment to recognize it. (Most apologists would give us more credit than ST does.) The Humanist axiom is that such is definitely not the case — that the existence of any suffering cannot be optimal — which requires that ST must be false.
    – Matthew
    Feb 14 at 22:14

Rowe's first premise is easily falsified.

It is very clear to any student of the Scriptures that God regards things like greed, lust, hate, and pride to be worse than the physical acts (theft, adultery, murder, etc.) which result from them.

It is also obvious that for the man-made physical evils we see, to magically prevent their occurrence would do nothing to address the greed, lust, hate and pride which caused them.

Furthermore, the natural physical evils we see are allowed to proliferate because if only the man-made evils were present, the pride of man would become even more pronounced; men would think that they could bring the world into a perfect state, an impossible task for fallen men.

The really sad part is the apparent belief that there is something about Rowe's formulation that makes it substantively different. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the same old, "The world is this way, but if God were like me He would have done it some other way, therefore there is no God."

  • I would not say it "easily" falsifies the first premise, because that means it's "easy" to dismiss real human pain and suffering as unimportant when compared to the motivations that led to it. If a single person acts from hatred, and their acts cause further suffering, which in turn leads to more hatred, then preventing the act would have reduced the amount of both suffering AND hatred. The inevitable long-term consequences of allowing cruelty cannot be dismissed so easily.
    – barbecue
    Feb 14 at 14:55
  • These long-term consequences are not inevitable. A person suffering cruelty can choose not to hate his oppressor.
    – EvilSnack
    Feb 14 at 21:07
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    Can every person really make that choice? I don't believe that. Most people are not capable of such selfless purity. Even if I accepted that every person could do so, we know from real-world experience that most will not. We see this in the real world with child abuse. Many abusers were themselves abused as children. If your thesis is that everyone who is imperfect enough to fail to achieve Christ-like forgiveness should be punished for that failure because God considers the motives more important than the suffering they cause, that's not a God I'm interested in.
    – barbecue
    Feb 15 at 13:37
  • God would not have commanded us to love, forgive, and pray for our enemies if there was anybody for whom this commandment would never be possible.
    – EvilSnack
    Feb 17 at 4:04
  • I don't accept that it's possible for everyone, but even if it were, reality is that it doesn't happen for most. I also don't care for the view that suffering is somehow erased from the equation simply because someone has forgiven the ones inflicting it.
    – barbecue
    Feb 17 at 16:11

The mightiest Atheist mistake is simply not believing in God or that the greatest good is union with Him in Heaven

  1. We should completely exclude and ignore the Bambi case since it had no moral actors in it with immortal souls. https://www.simplycatholic.com/animals-in-heaven/

  2. In Sue's case, her murder prior to the age of reason may have saved her from a life of misery; barring that, it certainly could have brought her murderer to repentance (like St. Maria Goretti's murderer) or woke her mother up from a life of depravity.

It's not moral to do evil so that good may come of it (ccc 1759, but it certainly is moral to do good in response to evil.

St. Paul says that All things work together for the good (Romans 8:28) which means ALL things, not just some things. Belief in that is non-negotiable for Christianity, if we fail in our hearts, to conceive even one thing is not capable of being made good by God, then despair creeps in. Alternatively, if we blithely believe all actions are in accord with God's will, then presumption creeps in.

The Christian balance, which is the virtue of hope, is the theorem which refutes the atheist syllogism.

This is true:

  1. In a universe without hope, there exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  2. An omniscient, wholly good being in a universe without hope would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being in a universe without hope.

But Rowe is wrong.

  • No, we can't simply ignore E1. Scripture is clear that animal suffering came about as a result of The Fall. Death is a consequence of sin, whether human death or animal death, and regardless it is the fault of us humans, permitted for much the same reasons any evil is permitted; namely, that we might better understand the consequences of Sin.
    – Matthew
    Feb 13 at 16:37
  • @Matthew one needs to make a distinction somewhere, I don't think scripture is terribly clear on the matter. Of course, I'm not exactly a creationist either.
    – Peter Turner
    Feb 13 at 16:46
  • "I'm not exactly a creationist either," true... That we disagree shows how, despite claims of those who reject its historicity, Genesis 1-11 does affect theology in any manner of subtle ways.
    – Matthew
    Feb 13 at 16:55
  • Do animals experience suffering (in the sense of having a conscious experience of pain)? If yes, isn't this something a loving god would want to avoid where possible (i.e. if it isn't the only way to achieve some greater good)?
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 14 at 0:27

This post will offer a rebuttal to this rebuttal to my previous answer. I’d be happy to move this post to another question if it fits better somewhere else.

Note that in my prior answer I did not offer a carte blanche defense of Skeptical Theism, nor will I do so here. Unchecked skepticism is self-defeating.

False dichotomy

Acknowledging uncertainty about God's purposes in one setting does not entail uncertainty about God's purposes in all settings. Such a proposal would easily collapse into the following false dichotomy:

  • Either we understand everything
  • Or we understand nothing

This is easily falsified. If I claim there are only these two options AND that I understand nothing, you shouldn't believe my claim that there are only these two options, since I don't understand anything (Also do I understand that I understand nothing??). If I claim to understand everything, anyone can easily quiz me and show that this claim is false.

Furthermore, this false dichotomy rejects the possibility of incremental learning. If there is no in-between state, where we understand some things but not other things, then there's no way to incrementally improve upon whatever understanding one already has. We'd all be stuck understanding nothing forever.

Perhaps there are those who believe we are all stuck understanding nothing forever...but "we understand nothing and you should believe us" doesn't sound like a promising sales pitch.

I submit that the reality of learning is self-evident (you understand how to read this sentence, but there was a time when you did not understand how to do this), therefore, the dichotomy fails by reductio ad absurdum.


Teleological Creator vs. Revelatory Creator

Teleological arguments provide good reason to believe in a Creator, but they tell us precious little about that Creator. Most of the specifics Christians claim to know about the Creator, including His plans & intentions, are available because the Creator chose to reveal them. The cosmos provides evidence that an intelligent Creator exists, but trying to derive the intentions of Deity from the stars would be astrology, not theology.

Christians can claim to understand the Creator's intentions insofar as He has revealed them, while acknowledging that He has not revealed everything. That we can rationally exercise trust while our understanding is still growing will be demonstrated by a series of examples.



How could you do this to me?

Taking an infant to receive shots is not a pleasant experience. In the moment, the baby is simply not capable of understanding the long-term benefits of inoculation against tuberculosis, and only understands the pain caused by the injection. The infant lacks understanding and therefore has no answer to the "evidential problem of evil injections".

When you go back for shots a few years later, it is possible to have a slightly more sophisticated conversation with the child. The child doesn't yet understand how a vaccine works, but understands concepts like "getting sick", and it is possible to explain that while the shot right now hurts, it is preventing something that would hurt a lot worse later. The child cannot independently verify this, but responsible parents will in the first few years of life have given the child immense reason to trust their parents. The child has a basic understanding that can begin to address the "evidential problem of evil injections" - someone who loves me, someone I trust, has told me this is worth it.

When adults receive their periodic tetanus booster shot, they have a greater understanding still, and can voluntarily put themselves in a position to experience pain because of their confidence in the game plan: I'm getting this shot so I will be protected against tetanus.

We could probably add further layers, including varying degrees of understanding about a particular pathogen, how vaccines function at a molecular level, etc., but the point will remain the same. The "evidential problem of evil injections" becomes increasingly answerable as greater understanding is gained. And yet even the young child 2 paragraphs above was rational in cooperating with the shots--they saw in part but not in full--based on the information that was available to them.

Google took you where??

Most people who have a smart phone and a car are comfortable following directions based on GPS navigation, even though vanishingly few people know in mathematical detail how GPS navigation works. How could we be so irrational as to follow the words & pictures on our phones if we don't know how they got there or why they were given?

Once upon a drive through southern New York, Google in its great wisdom saw fit to direct me straight through New York City, passing through some of the most intensely trafficked roadways (outside of LA, that is) in the United States. It was entirely possible to reach my destination without ever entering New York City--I could have passed north of the city and skipped it entirely. As I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic approaching the George Washington bridge, I could not help but wonder why on earth Google chose this particular route, and why I hadn't second-guessed Google and chosen a more northerly route that stayed out of the city.

There are plenty of possible explanations. Maybe Google made a mistake. Maybe a programmer did something nefarious. Maybe I misunderstood the instructions. Maybe I had messed up some setting on the app. Maybe the app had out of date information. Or maybe...just maybe...there was some catastrophe on the more northerly route such that it would have taken even longer than driving through the city. I still don't know why, and I'm still not 100% convinced that driving through New York City was the most efficient way to get to my destination, and yet...I still use Google for navigation. Obviously I must be insane, right? (don't answer that =) ).

No. I use Google for navigation because of its long track record of reliability, in successfully directing me to countless destinations around the world. The fact that I cannot explain Google's behavior on this specific occasion in NYC does not eliminate all of the other information I have in favor of Google's reliability. I believe it would be fair to say that in terms of geographic navigation, Google has been more reliable than any other source I've encountered.

When it comes to GPS-assisted navigation, lots of people--my past self in NYC traffic included--have partial information. And yet we rationally make inferences to the best explanation, and successfully arrive at our intended destinations, all the time.

Line upon line

(this section will apply scriptural teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)

The Book of Moses records an insightful experience from the life of the prophet Adam, after the Fall.

5 And he [God] gave unto them [Adam & Eve] commandments, that they should worship the Lord their God, and should offer the firstlings of their flocks, for an offering unto the Lord. And Adam was obedient unto the commandments of the Lord.

6 And after many days an angel of the Lord appeared unto Adam, saying: Why dost thou offer sacrifices unto the Lord? And Adam said unto him: I know not, save the Lord commanded me.

7 And then the angel spake, saying: This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth. (Moses 5:5-7)

In this passage God gave instructions and Adam obeyed. Adam trusted God (see the previous chapters), but did not know the reason for a particular commandment. When the angel asked, Adam did not know the intentions of God. However, this did not mean he would never know. When the time was right, God revealed additional information.

That we may know some things but not everything about God is not reason for despair. Isaiah explained that God teaches us "line upon line; here a little, and there a little" (see Isaiah 28:10). He gives us reason to trust Him, He asks us to exercise that trust in places where we do not have all the information, and in the process He teaches us something new.


In the previous examples we found that it is possible to know something about a source's actions/intentions (and therefore rationally trust that source), without knowing everything. And that God can reveal information on an ongoing basis to combat our ignorance little by little. That means that both of these statements can be true:

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)


And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:32)

We may not be able to answer every question; but that does not mean we cannot answer any question.


The problem of evil revisited

In addition to the argument above, focused on the reality of the middle ground between all or nothing, I'd like to propose a fundamentally different approach to the evidential argument from evil than what is outlined by William Rowe.

It is noteworthy that the arguments for purposeless suffering regularly focus on the suffering of someone else, rather than the author's own experience. What do the people who actually experienced horror have to say? (note that some may suggest excluding the sufferer's insights because they have experienced emotional distress and therefore we think we are more clear-headed and can understand their circumstances better than they do--this would be condescending and ill-informed)

Let's consider an example that directly refutes the 3rd party approach used in both of Rowe's of examples.

The Donner Party of pioneers is well-known as the group who ran low on food while stranded in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to murder & cannibalism. Less well-known are the Martin & Willie Handcart Companies, which 10 years later ran low on food while stranded in the snows of Wyoming, but did not resort to murder & cannibalism.

The starvation and exposure experienced by the Martin & Willie Handcart Company pioneers was extreme (see here) and the death toll was terrible. Tragedy and disaster are common descriptors. Their suffering was preventable, and their agony (from a mortal perspective) was not brief. To an outsider, this appears to be a prime example of Rowe's first premise.

Much criticism has been leveled at these pioneers for leaving too late in the year, for being inadequately prepared, etc., etc. Circa 1904, a Sunday School class was engaged in such criticism, not realizing that present in the room was Francis Webster, a survivor of the Martin Handcart Company. Webster's remarks were powerful, and they lay bare a critical flaw of Rowe's evidential problem of evil:

I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Hand Cart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that Company and my wife was in it. . . . I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there.

Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company (source)

Those looking from the outside in could see only the heart-wrenching, preventable suffering. Webster, who had actually experienced what the rest of us can scarcely imagine, had an entirely different outlook, because he saw the growth, change in nature, and eternal development that came through this refiner's fire.

Suffering that leads one to become acquainted with God is not purposeless, gratuitous suffering.

But one would never know this result by merely looking from the outside in. Rowe's argument assumes we can look from the outside in and judge some trials to be (probably) purposeless & gratuitous. Webster demonstrated to a sobbing Sunday School, and many humbled readers in the century since, that Rowe's assumption is entirely incorrect. We may not understand the greater good that came of Webster's suffering, but it was Webster's trial and he did understand.


But what of death?

Webster's example is powerful, but he didn't die. Does this change the argument? If someone suffers & dies, does it negate the potential beauty that God can give from the ashes of trial? (see Isaiah 61:3)

Let's learn from a teenage girl who showed wisdom beyond her years.

Gary Sabin lost his young son to cystic fibrosis. Then his daughter Jennifer began to succumb to the disease and soon faced imminent death (see a detailed account here). A new, risky, surgical procedure offered a chance to save her life. Gary Sabin's words:

I was taught this lesson powerfully a number of years ago by our then-16-year-old daughter, Jennifer. She was about to have a double lung transplant, where the five diseased lobes of her lungs would be completely removed and replaced by two healthy smaller lobes, donated by two amazing Christlike friends. It was a very high-risk procedure, yet the night before her surgery, Jennifer almost preached to me with all of her 90 pounds (41 kg), saying, “Don’t worry, Dad! Tomorrow I will wake up with new lungs, or I will wake up in a better place. Either way will be great.” That is faith; that is eternal perspective! Seeing life from an eternal vantage point provides clarity, comfort, courage, and hope. (source, emphasis mine).

Jennifer lived. Her brother did not. When Jennifer stared death in the face there was no "problem" of evil. There was hope because of the eternal plan of a loving God.



Sometimes we can see God's purposes for a specific event. Sometimes we cannot. Sometimes the growth that comes through trial is too personal to be understood by anyone save those who were there.

I believe those who recoil at human suffering, to the degree that they cannot fathom why God could let this happen, are motivated by genuine, God-given compassion. In countering logical, evidential, or emotional problems of evil, it is not my intent to discount the sincerity of that compassion. The compassion we feel for other people is one of the seeds of godliness in our spiritual nature.

But compassion without wisdom can be harmful. Historically, it was believed that putting butter on burns was helpful. It provided a soothing feeling. People applied butter to burns out of compassion. But eventually scientific inquiry caught up with the practice and people learned that putting butter on burns is actually harmful: it insulates the burn, allowing the injury to become worse. Oh the cruel irony - the very thing people were doing to help--from a place of compassion--was causing greater harm!

On a far grander scale than butter, one can imagine a compassionate individual seeking to save Jesus Himself from death and destroying the redemption of all mankind.

God, in His perfect compassion, wisdom, and foresight, sometimes allows suffering that we in our developing compassion, wisdom, and foresight struggle to understand. But God has also revealed His nature, His intentions, and His plan, so that even in cases where we do not yet understand the details, we can catch sight of the big picture.

God has not given me all truth, but He has given me some truth, and He has given me reason to trust Him. I trust that He will lead me to the best destination I am willing to accept, even if sometimes the journey takes a route I didn't expect.

  • Good rebuttal, +1. Preemptively, I think a counter-rebuttal would likely focus on animal suffering due to natural disasters or predation, where spiritual growth can hardly be a successful theodicy, or the inherent suffering associated with the process of evolution prior to human existence, including the mass extinction of dinosaurs, etc. (Young Earth Creationists would probably object to this last point, but that would open an entirely different can of worms.)
    – Mark
    Feb 19 at 10:50
  • @Mark Thanks! Since I believe that animals have spirits and will be resurrected to eternal felicity I don't see that this counter-rebuttal would have much purchase on my position. If animals have a different progression in the plan than we do, it does not therefore follow that there is no plan and no progression. Feb 19 at 17:29
  • I see. Any thoughts on this question?
    – Mark
    Feb 19 at 17:33
  • 1
    @Mark, as you say, whether all suffering is a result of Sin and the Fall — which is what Scripture teaches — or whether it's been going on for billions of years is indeed pertinent to the debate.
    – Matthew
    Feb 19 at 19:42
  • 1
    So I've tagged Matthew & Mark - I feel like Luke needs to comment here now. =) Feb 20 at 0:17

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