Reply to Agnostic Ed Babinski’s “Emotional” Argument from Evil

Reply to Agnostic Ed Babinski’s “Emotional” Argument from Evil September 19, 2018
Ed’s post appeared on the Debunking Christianity blog. Victor Reppert is a (Protestant) Christian teacher and author of C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, published by Inter-Varsity Press. He runs an excellent blog, dangerous idea, whose purpose is to “to discuss philosophy, chess, politics, C. S. Lewis, . . .” My kind of place! Ed’s words will be in blue; Victor’s in green.
* * * * *

I saw through Plantinga’s initial assumptions regarding his “solution” to the problem of evil twenty years ago while reading Plantinga’s book that a Calvinist friend loaned me. I phoned Plantinga years later. He didn’t answer my question.

I don’t know why he “didn’t answer” your question. Perhaps he was taken aback that you missed the answer, already in his book? Just speculating . . . I don’t think that you stumped him, because indeed, the answer is very simple:

Here’s my question:

A free-willed
All powerful
All knowing
All good
All perfect
All blissful God

creates something SOLELY out of His own will, power, knowledge, goodness, perfection, and bliss, so what room is there for anything less?

God cannot do what you demand because it is logically impossible (a topic that Plantinga amply covered in his book on evil; so you would have read it but didn’t grasp that he had already answered you).

God can’t create another God. It’s impossible for even an omnipotent being to do that.

For if God created another “god” (i.e., something not “less” than Himself); this second “god” is a creation;

A) Therefore, not eternal;

B) Therefore not self-existent;

C) Therefore not all-knowing (because it wouldn’t have known, e.g., about things that occurred before it existed);

D) Therefore not transcendent and out of time (coming into existence at a certain specific time precludes this);

E) Therefore not all-powerful (since it had to rely on another being for it’s own existence and was, thus, subject to its power (in other words, it is a contingent being).


All of this is impossible for a Being described as “God” in the classic, theistic (and/or Christian) sense of the word.

Ergo: God cannot create such a being, and can only create something fundamentally lesser than Himself, by virtue of the inherent constrictions of logic and the nature of reality.

Such creatures are necessarily limited in knowledge, by virtue of being creatures. This opens up the possibility of choosing wrongly (error), as a result of such lack of knowledge, or choosing evil, due to the free will that God gave them (they can choose to be against the God Who created them, which is the essence of evil, because of the all-goodness of God).

How can God overcome that? He cannot. Free will and the finite nature of creatures make evil possible, and even an omnipotent God cannot change that. This is precisely what Plantinga proved through logic alone. But no one here [at Debunking Christianity] wants to take on his argument and disprove it. Hence you are left with awkward, fumbling attempts to undermine it by sophistry or nibbling around the edges, doing about as much damage as a mouse would do to a steel door.

Simply piling up emotional examples of evil and suffering that one knows everyone will react to, does not prove a point philosophically (nor does the fact of being emotionally troubled by something necessarily entail doubt and a philosophical / theological existential or epistemic crisis). So let’s go on and see how your argument proceeds . . .

. . . but out of infinite perfection comes a cosmos where everything dies, where bliss is fleeting, where minds and hearts grow confused, damaged, sometimes even shattered via the process of struggling to earn a living and/or raise a family, or whittled down via repressive labor, or bored to death. Where human development is difficult and perilous, where communication is difficult, even perilous, for both people and nations, where ignorance (inherent in each culture, family and individual) and stubbornness about one’s ignorance is rife (the latter perhaps due to increasing inflexibility of the brain/mind once it has assumed a “system”- or been “assumed by” a system – because we not only “have beliefs,” but there is also evidence that “beliefs have us” as well).

Very eloquent, but this does exactly nothing to further your claims that such things somehow cast doubt on God’s existence or His goodness. Things obviously die because they are subject to natural processes of decay. This is the natural world: a created thing dies, but an uncreated, eternal thing does not. Nevertheless, God allowed the possibility of eternal life, and an eternal life in resurrected, glorified bodies, so He has overcome death. The real “problem” with death, then, clearly lies with the atheist, because it makes a mockery of the meaning of life, if all we have is 70-odd years and then we are annihilated for all eternity.

Most of this “evil” which is so troubling to atheists, up to and including a supposed “proof” of God’s nonexistence or non-goodness, is a result of the necessary nature of “natural” nature, or because of free will choices of human beings to do evil (and good). I shall argue in due course that it is implausible and irrational to expect God to overcome all this at all times (as atheists seem to demand).

A cosmos where we cannot “see” what’s “behind it,”

That may be your view, but it is not the biblical, Christian one (and you purport to be making an argument of Christian internal inconsistency, so this is absolutely relevant). The biblical view is that the universe is a clear argument that God exists; it “speaks” God (Romans 1 and elsewhere). And, of course, the revelation in the Bible reveals God in propositional fashion as well.

where “God” and “heaven” and the “afterlife” (or even the “before birth”) remains “hidden” to the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants throughout time.

This is not true, either, in the Christian view. People may not have the benefit of revelation and the gospel, yet the Bible says that they are judged by what they know, and that they can know at least the basics of God’s law by virtue of conscience (Romans 2). Thus, they can not only know God (by creation and conscience, even without revelation), but can be saved (still by the blood of Christ, whether they know about Jesus or not).

A cosmos where consciousness does not appear to pop out fully grown all at once, but has to develop just as the brain/mind develops in the womb and during the time of infancy, childhood, adolescent impulsiveness and finally adulthood.

So what? Neither development nor evolution suggest in the slightest that God doesn’t exist.

A cosmos where we continue to struggled against a world of nature that kills with cold, wind, fire, water, earth, desert heat, lava, predators, poisons, diseases, parasites. A cosmos where we strive to lessen the painful effects of, or eliminate, nature’s dangers and pains that haunt not only us, but every other living organism on this planet. So we fighting the cold weather that kills to the desert heat that withers, and we strive to discern early warning signs of natural disasters and epidemics. A cosmos where we also strive to eliminate barriers of communication, or blow each other up trying.

Again, simply multiplying difficult aspects of physical and social existence does nothing at all to disprove God, unless you somehow fatally undermine the premises of the Free Will Defense. But no one has done that, which is why appeal to emotions is the order of the day in the atheological polemic. What one can’t do by reason and logic, they can try to smuggle in by a fallacious appeal to touchy-feely emotions.

Christian apologists like Plantinga ADD to the above mix of confusion and dangers their PRESUMPTION that this cosmos is all for the greater good,

It’s not a “presumption” within the Christian world view: it is a rational belief, accepted in faith, based on the content of the revelation. One has to knock down the revelation in order to undermine that. Of course, you and others (knowing this) specialize in approaching the Bible like a butcher approaches a hog. But there is no internal inconsistency or incoherence in a Christian accepting this revelation, on various grounds. Once having done that, we are assured that indeed there is a greater good that we cannot comprehend, being finite and fallen beings, but which we accept on faith, based on what we do know about God’s goodness and power.

and PRESUME that besides all of the above confusion imperfection and dangers – from the death of everything we see – to insufferable boredom – to daily pains – passions – miscommunications – the ignorance inherent in each culture, family and individual – the inflexibility and inertia inherent in each brain/mind as it develops from youth – or degenerates with age – besides all that – Christian apologists insist everyone MUST believe in a particular holy book written by true believers (even in a particular INTERPRETATION of that holy book), or we will not only continue to suffer as on earth, but suffer relentlessly for eternity, without mercy.

Christians believe in revelation (what a revelation!). YAWN. Complaining about what other people believe is not an argument for the problem of evil or anything else.

Secondly, we’re not saved by a book, but by a Person and by God. Since this can occur independently of a book (the Bible), it obviously is not caused by that book, or by one interpretation of it. Those who go to hell do so in their own free will, by their own free choice, having rejected the God Whose existence and nature is “clearly seen” by all (Romans 1). For the life of me, I don’t understand why this should be so objectionable: God allows free creatures to reject Him and even spend eternity without Him if they so desire. Would you rather have Him force you to go to heaven rather than give you the freedom to freely choose heaven or hell as your ultimate destination? In any event, the existence of hell is no proof whatsoever that God is evil. It proves (almost more than anything else) that men are free.

And Plantinga presents it all like it’s the most “rational” view possible.

Certainly it is more rational and sensible than an ultimately meaningless universe where we die and are annihilated, and many many lives seem to have been cruel and senseless, as you say; a profoundly death-worshiping culture where millions of preborn babies are slaughtered with the full consent of people who themselves believe that this life is all there is: so that these children are deprived of what limited existence they have and can’t even see the light of day or see their mother’s faces (the enlightened modern equivalent of the human sacrifices of the Aztecs or of cannibalism). The true, profound problems come when one ponders a universe of that sort, not the Christian universe. The atheist Problem of Good is infinitely more troublesome than the Problem of Evil.

Christian philosopher Victor Reppert at his blog, “C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea,” seems at least doubtful that Plantinga’s view is the most rational and suggests that it might made a bit more sense if people received “another chance” after they had died to “convert.”

I looked over there and I didn’t see Victor taking this stance. Perhaps it was an earlier article you had in mind. I saw him questioning how the atheist thinks he has a silver bullet in the Problem of Evil. He denied this, and made a link to my recent article summarizing Plantinga’s classic Free will Defense. He takes exactly what is my own apologetic and epistemological position, all down the line, as far as I can tell from his two articles:

Most of us think that it is a good day’s work for a philosopher to provide a cumulative-case role-player, something that might “break the tie” if someone is on the fence between two positions, and in combination with other reasons, might provide a good reason for, say, believing in God or not believing in God.

That is exactly my own position, and has been for many many years now.

The argument from evil seems to have a different status, at least in many minds. Many advocates of the argument from evil suppose that that argument, unlike your typical theistic on atheistic argument, really can stand on its own as a disproof of the existence of God, showing that all who believe in God are just being irrational. Plantinga is widely credited by both theists and atheists with showing that the argument does not achieve this goal.

Exactly. Amen.

Yet, I get the impression from some people that they really think that the argument from evil is something more than a cumulative case role-player, and I do not think that this claim is defensible. I am unsure as to whether the argument from evil can successfully play a role as a cumulative-case role-player, but I do not think it can do more than this.

Precisely. He thinks it fails as a disproof of God.

He asks the rhetorical question:

Would anyone like to argue that it really is stronger than your average cumulative-case role player? That, virtually alone of all philosophical arguments, and regardless of all other considerations both pro and con, really provides beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist.

In the comments, former Christian “exapologist” sensibly agrees with Reppert:

I agree with you on the point recently made by Van Inwagen in his new book on the problem of evil, viz., that like many other deductive philosophical arguments with momentous conclusions, it’s imprudent to put too much weight on the logical problem of evil. I also think you’re right that a cumulative case is needed for justifiedly being a theist or atheist.

Well-stated, indeed.

As for the “second chance at salvation,” there is room for some debate. I myself have had lengthy dialogues on the subject: “Dialogue On Salvation After Death” (vs. [more liberal Christian] Sogn Mill-Scout). I ultimately decided against this, yet I did so because I believe that God gives everyone ample opportunity and knowledge enough to decide on following God or not during this life. The only “problem” comes when one thinks that God doesn’t give everyone a “fair chance.” I deny this premise, on explicit biblical grounds.

I assume Vic believes that the ignorant limited brain/minds, and confused or debilitated characteristics of people’s brain/minds from living in this imperfect cosmos will be healed following death (otherwise they might misperceive even the afterlife based on past limited experiences or imperfect brain/mind constitutions). So Vic suggests non-Christians will all be given another chance to “believe” after they have seen God and heaven and had time to investigate and ponder matters on the “other” side of this cosmos.

He and I agree that God is merciful and just. Whether he allows this as a means to fairly judge individuals, or else gives everyone a fair chance in this life, the result is the same: no one is damned unfairly or unjustly or apart from their free choice to pursue the path of rebellion against God.

But Vic also realizes I suppose that this is a rationalization on Vic’s part. (What other of Vic’s beliefs might not also be “rationalizations to believe” as he does, i.e., rather than “reasons to believe?”)

The inevitable digs at Christian honesty make their pathetic appearance . . .

At the very least Vic does not appear to think that Plantinga has “solved” all the problems regarding this cosmos and the Christian view of salvation, since Vic recognizes the need to try and go “further” than Plantinga via Vic’s “second chance” scenario/rationalization.

This appears to refer to an earlier paper. Since you provide no link, I’m not gonna spend time searching for it. It is your job to send us to the place that you are critiquing.

Victor Reppert remains uncomfortable, has more questions than most orthodox Christian apologists on the internet. (Welcome to my mind/brain world, Vic, filled with more questions than answers.)

I’d have to see what those are. But from what I have seen from these two articles on the Problem of Evil, he approaches the matter almost exactly as I do (which I would expect, since we are both avid C. S. Lewis devotees). For example, in his article, “More on the Problem of Evil,” he writes:

I can’t for the life of me see why the Christian theist’s inability to explain some evils is more damaging to theism than the naturalist’s inability to explain consciousness is for naturalism. If anything, the theist at least can, in broad outline, show how in many cases suffering can work redemptively. I would admit that in other cases it’s far more mysterious.

. . . If you look back at Clayton’s reasons why he thinks a hidden good argument won’t work, you will find him appealing to Kantian moral principles and moral principles based on a “respect-for-persons” ethic. To get the silver bullet he wants, he either has to argue that these principle hold true objectively and that everyone ought to accept them even if they don’t, or else he has to argue that all Christians either accept them or ought to accept them. I think that puts an intolerable burden on his argument.

“Exapologist” again makes a very sensible comment:

First, I grant that consciousness is a genuine problem for naturalism . . . Second, while I think it’s possible for a theist to resist the logical or evidential problem of evil in principle, so long as their cumulative case for theism is sufficiently strong, I worry that this case isn’t sufficiently strong to make the sorts of resistive moves you mention.

I only add that if the argument fails on logical grounds, it is irrelevant how strong the cumulative Christian / theist case is as far as the Problem of Evil is concerned. That would have relevance for the overall Christian case, but not with regard to whether the atheological [logical] Problem of Evil succeeds in its initial ambitious purpose of disproving God’s existence.

Exapologist then argues that if the cumulative case is weak, then the Plantingian resistance to the claims of the Problem of Evil are weakened thusly. But this doesn’t logically follow at all. He writes:

I’m not sure how interesting your point is with respect to the ability of theists to resist the force of the problem(s) of evil. Consider it granted that you’re in your epistemic rights to resist it. Still, that’s of no help to the non-theist: it gives them no reason whatever for rejecting it.

To the contrary, it provides every sufficient reason to reject the argument insofar as it supposedly disproves 1) God’s existence, or 2) supposed impossibilities of God being all-good or all-powerful or both. The other proofs and evidences of God and Christianity stand or fall independently of this.

Then you ask:

How do you get from perfect goodness to evil? Or from unconsciousness to consciousness? I don’t know. Seems like in both cases philosophers are trying to get to someplace that’s simply excluded from the beginning of their questioning by definition.

Well, we think we do have a pretty good idea, and “know”. It’s called free will. God (yes, the all-good and all-powerful One) can’t create free creatures and at the same time create a state of affairs where they will not have any possibility of sinning and doing evil. It’s logically impossible. And until an atheist grasps that he will just be spinning his wheels and never comprehend why he is doing so and why it accomplishes nothing whatsoever.

You then try the argument from natural evil, in comments at Reppert’s blog:

Lastly, many of the world’s pains and sufferings are not believed to be due to Adam’s “free will,” but are believed to have been around ages before Adam arose. Death was around before Adam, so was pain and suffering. So God choose to create a cosmos where every living things in it eventually dies and where all the living creatures it contains are living lives in which they “struggle” for their very lives against other living things God designed, or against nature in general that God designed, and her myriad ways to kill creatures–from a sudden frost to a tsunami or even asteroid. I haven’t even gotten into how psychological suffering enters into the picture, or brain diseases.

I’ve made an extensive argument about this in my long paper on the Problem of Evil. I’ll do a nutshell version here:

Supposing we assume for the sake of argument that God should (and should reasonably be expected to) intervene in every case of “natural evil.” Nothing bad could then ever happen.

If a tree is about to fall on my daughter, God would suspend the laws of nature and it would spring back up. If I walk into the kitchen of an army barracks where there is a contageous disease, God would manipulate whatever of my cells He has to change in order for me not to catch it. If a mosquito is about to bite my wife on her pretty face, God takes away the stinger or gives the mosquito an urge to eat leaves rather than drink blood, etc.

Does that universe not strike one as immediately absurd? I argued elsewhere that the atheist is extremely reluctant to allow that God intervenes at all in the natural world (denying miracles and any sense of creation unless it is literally identified with natural evolution: and a strong materialist will, of course, even deny any connection there). Yet when we switch over to this scenario, He is supposed to do everything.

For if God can do anything or something to prevent evil, why not everything? By what principle does the atheist judge God and claim that He must supernaturally intervene in every case of possible suffering? Are you saying that God is eternally bound by His nature to prevent my wife being bitten by a mosquito, or else He is an evil, sadistic tyrant? That seems to be a clear reductio ad absurdum. But if He is required to intervene in “big” cases of horrible evil, why not also in little ones? How can a line be rationally drawn? That’s one problem.

The other one is what happens to free will in such a world (as C. S. Lewis argued in his Problem of Pain). If God intervenes every time someone is about to stub their toe, get a sore nose from blowing it too much, or when a criminal is about to strangle someone in their bed, then there really isn’t free will, is there?, nor is there a sensible natural world. How could science even be possible to study, since the world would be changed millions of times a second, it seems to me, therefore could not be systematically studied (there would be nothing systematic to study, since science presupposes both uniformitarianism and methodological naturalism).

No person would be free to do evil because God would prevent it. He would be as powerless as a small fish would be to break out of an aquarium with thick glass walls. But if one has no free will to do evil, how could he be truly free to do good? He would only do good because he has to, not because he is truly free and wants to.

God can’t bring this about as a matter of necessity. Free creatures can possibly never sin (the angels who didn’t rebel never did), but there had to remain a possibility that they could have. Indeed, some of them did sin, and we call them the devil and his demons. This is the whole point.

Therefore, natural evil exists because it is the only way to have both a sensible natural world and free will. The same thing applies to evil done by humans to each other, in their free will. The only way an omnipotent God can prevent it is to wipe out free will. But that is not a desirable end at all. So evil must exist. If God could wipe out one instance of it here, He could also (and “should”) wipe out every instance of it. But then free will would go too.

God obviously, then, thought that free will was worth allowing evil. Our multiplications of horror stories do not undermine the logical impossibility (even for God) to have both free will and a “perfect” world. Emotional arguments and retelling of grisly tales of astonishing evil do not dent this at all. That’s not to say they aren’t troubling. Of course they are. Christians are as troubled by evil itself as anyone else (I would say, actually much more so), but shouldn’t be fatally troubled by the Problem of Evil because it simply doesn’t cast into doubt God’s existence or goodness or omnipotence, as shown.

I conclude (allowing that this is mere speculation of a finite human being, but presumably at least of a logical sort) that God could have reasonably done one of two things:

1) Prevented all evil by preventing free will of creatures to occur.

2) Prevented all evil by relentless intervention of obstruction of all natural events or freely willed actions that cause suffering and pain.

But #2 quickly reduces to a scenario of #1 and denial of free will, as I think I’ve shown. And a theoretical #3 (in effect, a weak version of #2) of selective intervention, makes little sense to me, because it is difficult to see where God should intervene and where He should not. On what basis? If He should prevent, say, an instance of chapped lips (a “natural evil,” after all, for someone like myself who can hardly blissfully survive without my constant companion Blistex), why not the slightest stomach cramps over here or an infinitely mild headache over there?

Therefore, I conclude that He opted for allowing free will to exist and a natural world to exist, with only rare miraculous interventions, because this opened up the possibility for much more good, which is better than no good at all (since unfree creatures cannot even do “good” by any reasonable definition of what it means).

But back to your critique:

I have rational difficulties conceiving of a perfectly good and perfectly powerful being squeezing out a cosmos such as this. Furthermore, the experience of this cosmos in which all things die (and struggle not to) with such daily persistence is a shared experience of everyone on the planet.

That’s fine, but I haven’t seen them yet. What I’ve seen is an insufficiently thought-through, illogical argument and a bunch of emotionalism (however eloquent in detailing the human condition in this vale of tears). This doesn’t cut it in establishing your point.

At this point in your paper, you go on to the merest speculation, typical of agnostic hyper-presumptuous game-playing concerning God, which holds less than no interest to me. Someone else can tackle that. I am interested solely in how you supposedly disprove God or a good or omnipotent God by the classical means of the Problem of Evil. As far as I am concerned, you have utterly failed in that task, and I believe I have shown why, above.

You conclude:

Even in the Bible, though Job didn’t curse God, he sought answers. “WHY?” . . . C. S. Lewis admitted a year before he died that he “dreaded most” the thought that he may have been “deceiving himself” concerning the kind of “God” who would give his wife cancer and then himself cancer. Or as in the case of a conversation Mother Teresa had (she didn’t believe in pain killers) with a man suffering intense pain from cancer, “Jesus is kissing you,” to which the man replied, “Then I wish he’d stop.” That’s the problem of pain in a nutshell. The “dread” of C. S. Lewis. The “Whys” of Job and Jesus.

Struggling over this particular pain or evil and wondering what the point of it is, is an emotional response, or one of nerve endings. Everyone understands that. But it’s not an argument against God’s existence or a compelling argument that He is not good.

Christians struggle far more with these questions than atheists do with their own “problem of good.” We don’t need to be lectured about suffering, as if we were unacquainted with it. That goes for me, too. I’ve had plenty of it. My sister-in-law died suddenly of a brain tumor. After she died, my brother lost his job and then found out he had leukemia. He died of that at age 49, after years of intense suffering. I watched all that. My father now has lung cancer. My wife’s father died suddenly, six days before Christmas 2005. His wife is still struggling with grief and depression. Life is filled with such things. My favorite aunt died at a relatively young age, and I still miss her terribly, as I do my only brother.

But note that this doesn’t cause a Christian of robust faith to question that God exists or that He is good. My brother (an evangelical Christian) never lost faith. I never did, watching him suffer and die. In fact, the only thing that made sense of it was the knowledge that he was moving on to a much better life. My mother-in-law hasn’t lost faith at all, despite all her present suffering, nor has my wife, etc. We are not irrational, gullible (let alone cold-hearted) people. We accept in faith that there is some tragic necessity for suffering, even though we don’t always understand it. I think I’ve hit upon the reason why, above.

C. S. Lewis went through a trying time, after his wife died (quite understandably), but he did not die without faith. He regained it. Agnostics and atheists love to quote the parts of A Grief Observed where Lewis is mightily struggling to understand (all this shows is that Christians are both human and honest). But they conveniently neglect to point out that this wasn’t the end of it for Lewis. That book is ultimately one of personal triumph, not despair.

Likewise with Job. He didn’t lose his faith, did he? He struggled with why God did these things (or allowed them to happen), but it is a “problem” precisely because it presupposes that God exists, not that He doesn’t exist.


(originally 10-23-06)

Photo credit: image by Comfreak (2-27-17) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]


"Great article, Sir. I always learn a lot reading you work.If I may, I think ..."

Samuel Appearing to Saul: Argument for ..."
"Right. I've only written three books about it and well over a hundred articles. I ..."

Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) vs. ..."

Browse Our Archives