The Problem of Evil

In God and the Problem of Evil, B. C. Johnson offers arguments for and against the goodness of God, concluding that considerations of the latter surely cast Him as not all good.

As his opening gambit, he presents a scenario that sets the stage. In this scenario, a baby is “painfully burned to death” in a house fire.

This is enough to call God’s goodness into question but also engenders related concerns.

The question is, if God is all good, all powerful and all knowing, how could He allow this to happen? In the absence of “excuses” for not interceding, the short answer is that God is not good.

Warranting a broader justification, Johnson proceeds to show that in entertaining several possible excuses, the argument against God’s goodness is enhanced.[1]  

The first caveat he presents is that the baby will go to heaven—the ultimate “better place.” That, however, does not excuse the fact that the baby suffered, which seems antithetical to God’s purported goodness. QED—God is not all good.

His second caveat is that God has intentions that are unknown to us. The issue is that mere mortals might take up the cause and burn houses to the ground in support of that higher purpose. That, however, would be as absurd as a lawyer defending a client based on “forthcoming” evidence. In the absence of purported evidence, the malevolent actor, like God, would still appear to be at fault (like the knowing committal of rape and the absence of DNA evidence to prove one’s guilt). Apart from the folly of mortals taking up the mantel of God, the unfulfilled promise merely forestalls the matter of God’s ultimate culpability. In the face of this, the lack of divine revelation of the higher purpose is yet another indictment against assertions of God’s supreme goodness.

The third caveat is the theist’s claim that man has been granted free will. This is purported to absolve God of culpability for all evils, be they of natural causes (such as famine, weather, or disease) or moral causes (such as lying, torture, murder). Johnson, however, turns this claim on its head as a further indictment, for a mortal bystander might not brave a fire to save a baby, but a righteous divine being that could—but doesn’t—calls Its supreme virtue into question. That is the ultimate contradiction. QED—God is not all good.

An Objection

That third caveat—the theist’s free will claim—is revisited in Johnson’s objections to the arguments against God’s supreme goodness. There is a countervailing interpretation presenting a stronger argument, or at least a more favorable defense. In the latter sense, it forestalls the claims against it. Here it is in paraphrase: ‘Man has been given free will so that if he accidentally or purposely causes fires, killing babies, it is his fault alone.’

Free will is the ultimate line in the sand between mortals and Gods. If there is to be any brinksmanship there has to be a brink, and that’s the divide between what God does or doesn’t do on man’s behalf.

The leveraging of the free will argument is that ‘Evil is a necessary by-product of the laws of nature and therefore it is irrational for God to interfere every time a disaster happens.’ Were He to intercede, alterations of the causal order would undermine the predictive and demonstrative power of natural law. Moral determinists would argue that similar mechanics were baked-in at Creation. Consequently, the moral determinations of mere mortals proceed apace, independent of the higher morality of the divine. The problem of evil is thus separate and distinct from any and all considerations of God. QED—we cannot use the problem of evil to disprove the supreme goodness of God.[2]

The ultimate comeback of the theist to any argument is, in Johnson’s words, the “retreat to faith.” We cannot know God, we can only believe. In order to believe, we have to make a leap of faith. In The Grand Scheme of things, over the expanse of time and the scale of the universe, the nature of God is beyond our comprehension.[3]

An interesting argument in the readings references “compatibilistic philosophies” as a reconciliation between God and notions of free will.[4] Among these is the proposition that God, though all-knowing, all powerful and all good, is disengaged, because the real meaning of free will is freedom from coercion.

Thus, God is beyond reproach and upheld as the paradigm of virtue, whereas mere mortals fall short. In that, there is no contradiction in the statement that God is all good and there exists freedom of will in the mortal realm.

An Original Response to the Objection in Defense of the Argument

Johnson offers three contentions: (a) that God is more likely to be all evil than to be all good, (b) God is less likely to be all evil than to be all good, and (c) God is equally likely to be either.[5] He concludes that (a) and (c) are unlikely and (c) cannot be true, based on palpable evidences of excuses that people make in moral dilemmas that reference actual facts rather than suppositions. God’s motives are not ascertainable and that, coupled with the existence of evil, does not exempt him from consideration as being fallible. He concludes that the problem of evil trumps the theist’s doctrine of free will and therefore, the notion that God is all good.

The simpler, ontological argument is that the is no need for a prime mover in creation, let alone one that is omnipotent, for that further begs the question of a first cause. Moral relativism seems to be the more tenable hypothesis if one has a need to impose that assumption, because it separates out concerns over purported divine absolutes, natural law, and admits of cultural variation in the realm of mortals. Frankfurt’s contention that the selections we’re presented, whether natural or synthetic, are subject to choice (Second Ordered Desires) also frees us from the strict determinist camp.

If there is evil in the world, it is a consequence of mortal determination. Were we to admit of a divine being, He is culpable for the conditions that engendered the problem of evil. Call that a consequence of free choice. The prime mover is the ultimate cause, and the buck stops there.


[1] There is a succession of caveats offered by Johnson regarding God’s tolerance for evil (including elimination of “overreliance” on a higher power for outside aid, creating a mortal sense of moral urgency, building virtues such as sympathy and courage, the necessity of evil as a contrast to good so that we may know what good is, etc.), that are beyond the scope of this treatise.

[2] The contingency of the above argument on determinacy will be revisited shortly.

[3] To wit, A child asks God, how much is a million dollars? God answers, “A million dollars to you is like a penny to me.” The child asks God, “How much is a hundred years?” God answers, “A hundred years to you is like a second to me.” The child then asks, “Would you give me a million dollars?” God answers, “In a second.” (Apropos joke.)

[4] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[5] Johnson makes mention that the notion of God’s fallibility is held up in the extreme as contradictory evidence of His non-existence. Short of that claim we assert that God is fallible and thus not all good.

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