The evidential problem of evil points to the improbability that the amount of evil we see in the world – particularly gratuitous evil – would exist if an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists.  The argument usually takes the following form:

(1)   If God exists, gratuitous evil would not exist
(2)   Gratuitous evil exists
(3)   Therefore God does not exist 

Many theists attempt to undermine this argument by attacking the veracity of premise two.  For example, William Lane Craig and William Alston argue that humans are not in an epistemic place to judge any act of evil as gratuitous since we cannot see the big picture of history.  For all we know, an act of seemingly gratuitous evil will result in a greater good years or even centuries from now, either in the life of the person who experienced the evil or in the life of another person in another country.  Our cognitive limitations should not be used as evidence that gratuitous evil exists.  At best we must remain agnostic on the question.

This is an appeal to the Greater-Good Defense, which argues that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting all evils—including those that appear gratuitous to us—such as using them to bring about some greater good that could not have been brought about apart from those evils.

In the latest issue of Philosophia Christi, Kirk R. MacGregor provides some reasons for thinking that this response to the evidential problem of evil is misguided.  Just because our cognitive and temporal limitations make it impossible for us to prove that any act of evil is truly gratuitous does not mean that gratuitous evil does not exist.  He argues that the belief that some evils are gratuitous is a properly basic belief.  For example, we do not believe that every time we are bitten by a mosquito or stub our toe, that these evils have some greater purpose or will be used to accomplish a greater good.  Such things make virtually no difference in our own lives, yet alone on the grand scheme of things.  Given the proper basicality of belief in gratuitous evil, MacGregor says the burden of proof is on those who would deny the existence of gratuitous evils, and to meet their burden of proof they must explain how every instance of gratuitous evil actually results in some greater good.  This is not possible, and thus the person who believes in the existence of gratuitous evil is prima facie justified in maintaining that belief, even given his cognitive and temporal limitations.

He also finds fault in the Greater-Good Defense, arguing that it turns the universe into an overdetermined system:

The absurdity of the Greater-Good Defense is multiplied by its transformation of the universe into a philosophically overdetermined system, where hidden benefits are needlessly assigned to all instances of ostensibly pointless evil therein.  For example, every time a tree falls upon and kills a raccoon in the forest or I get a headache, God allows it in order to bring about some clandestine greater good at some unspecified point in world history that would not have otherwise transpired, which proposition seems outrageously ad hoc.[1]

Thirdly, MacGregor argues that there is a logical incompatibility between the claim that God uses all acts of evil to accomplish a greater good and the Biblical command to do what we can to prevent evils.  If acts of evil are the means by which God accomplishes a greater good, then to prevent those acts of evil would prevent God from accomplishing His intended good.  Only if some acts of evil are gratuitous could a prevention of evil be compatible with God’s good purposes.  One could counter-argue that God still wants us to prevent evil, even if doing so might prevent some greater good since it is better to have some good without evil rather than more good with evil.  God may furnish us with a greater good as a reward for enduring the evil, but would prefer that we do not have to endure the evil to begin with.

Given MacGregor’s acceptance of gratuitous evil, does he accept the atheist’s argument?  No.  He thinks the best way to undermine the evidential problem of evil is to challenge premise one.  It is not true that if God exists gratuitous evil would not exist.  The existence of gratuitous evil is what we would expect in a freedom-permitting universe, for if God creates a world in which creatures enjoy freedom of the will, they can use that will for either good or bad.  For their will to remain free, they must be allowed to choose even the most horrendous of evils.  Gratuitous evils are “simply a logically unavoidable necessity of contingent living in a freedom-permitting world.”[2]  While God can surely use many of those individual acts of evil for our good, it does not follow that every act of evil that God allows, He allows for the purpose of accomplishing some greater good.  He allows acts of evil, even gratuitous acts of evil, because He values and honors the freedom of our will.

What about Romans 8:28 and Ephesians 1:11?  These passages promise us that God will ultimately use even acts of evil for our good.  They do not promise us that the good will outweigh the evil, nor do they require us to think that every act of evil will be used for good.  Romans 8:28 in particular is a general affirmation that God is working on our behalf, using both the good and the bad to our ultimate advantage.

[1]Kirk R. MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil” in Philosophia Christi, Vol. 14, Number 1, 2012; pp. 165-180, 168.

[2]Kirk R. MacGregor, “The Existence and Irrelevance of Gratuitous Evil” in Philosophia Christi, Vol. 14, Number 1, 2012; pp. 165-180, 180.