The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of St. Andrews in 2003

  • Peter Van Inwagen
  • Jun 18, 2009
  • Series: Volume 12 - 2009
book-problem of evil-oxford

Peter Van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of St Andrews in 2003. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006. 183 pp. Hardback, $50.00. ISBN: 978-0-199-24560-4.

On September 11, 2001 the world woke up to the reality of human evil on a global scale. And, in a similar manner, the need to recognize and account for the presence of natural evil came to the forefront on December 26, 2004 when the Asian earthquake and subsequent tsunami became one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history as more than 225,000 people in eleven countries died when their coastal communities were inundated and devastated. Beyond the impact of these two major events, every day we struggle against countless smaller cases of disease and sickness, crime and abuse, natural disasters and destruction, and other forms of suffering and tragedy in our own lives and our fellow humanity around the world. Bad things happen to all people, and none of us are left untouched. So the question is unavoidable: how can such bad things happen in a world created and governed by a just, loving, and all-powerful God? In this book Peter Van Inwagen, the John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, lays out a case for why the existence of so many bad things, and of certain unspeakably horrible bad things, do not count against the existence of God as traditionally understood.

This book is a revised compilation of the Gifford lecture series that Peter Van Inwagen delivered at the University of St Andrews in April and May of 2003. Each of the eight chapters corresponds to one of the lectures in the lecture series and thus was written with the intention of being read aloud to an audience rather than published in book format. Also, while much of the discussion is of a technical nature, the lectures were intended for a general audience rather than for an audience of analytic philosophers.

Van Inwagen begins by defending his approach to the problem of evil. He considers the various ways in which the problem can be stated, and notes much of the difficulty in doing this in precise terms. He distinguishes between several different “problems of evil” and varieties of “arguments from evil.” His thesis is that the argument from evil is a failure, and the central program of the book is to show why this is the case. By the argument from evil he means using the existence of evil in the world as an argument for the non-existence of God – understood (at a minimum) as an omnipotent (i.e., all powerful, almighty) and morally perfect being. In doing this, his approach is not to present a theodicy (which he defines as a story that attempts to give the real truth of the matter of why God allows evil) but rather a defense, which attempts to give a reasonable explanation of the situation in the same manner as a lawyer would present to the jury a story of what might have happened in order to show the innocence - or guilt - of the accused on trial.

As a means of clarifying which God is being argued against in the argument from evil, Van Inwagen discusses a more or less traditional list of the properties ascribed to God that are common to Jews, Christians and Muslims – the properties that adherents of these religions would all agree belong to God. These are that God is a person, omnipotent (all-powerful or almighty), omniscient (all-knowing), morally perfect (perfectly good), eternal, immutable, omnipresent, creator, necessary and unique (and necessarily so, since he is the only being who possesses these properties in any possible world). He contends that this list should be understood as an attempt to flesh out the Anselmian notion of a “something than which a greater cannot be conceived” and that the concept of God is properly understood in this sense. Along these lines, he considers whether it is possible to revise this traditional list in any way without losing the concept of God in the process.

In chapter three, Van Inwagen attempts to explain what it means for an argument to be a philosophical failure. The approach taken in the book is to present an ideal situation of a theist and atheist attempting to persuade the members of a neutral audience of the relative merits of each of their positions. Chapters four to seven are the application of this approach, in that they try to show that the argument from evil is a failure in this sense, with a consideration of the “global” argument from evil in chapters four and five, the “local” argument from evil in chapter six, and the suffering of animals in chapter seven. The global argument contends that the total amount of evil (primarily the suffering) in the world is what counts against the existence of God, while the local argument is concerned not with an aggregate of evil, but rather in dealing with the occurrence of “a single horrible event.”

In terms of the global argument, the author argues against it by employing a version of the “free-will defense,” a story according to which the evils of the world result from the abuse of free-will by created beings. And, as a part of this, to refute the further argument that suffering due to natural (not caused by acts of human will) events counts against the existence of God, Van Inwagen expands his story to account for this situation as a result of the “primordial separation of our remote ancestors from God.” Thus, in this case, the suffering of human beings today by floods and earthquakes can also be understood as remotely caused by past abuses of free will.

Van Inwagen then expands the free-will defense further in chapter seven to show that the local argument from evil fails because God may have had to allow the world to be a horrible place or his plan for the redemption of humanity would fail. In doing so, while God removes many horrors from the world, he still had to draw something of an arbitrary line in terms of which horrors he would permit to occur in order that his plan to redeem humanity succeed. The reason Van Inwagen gives turns on a highly technical discussion of the notion of vagueness and how it informs why the number of horrors that God would allow had to be somewhat arbitrary. In short, no matter where God draws the line in terms of horrors that he removes, countless horrors would remain -  and the victim of any one of the remaining horrors God could charge him with allowing that horror to occur – because “there was no non-arbitrary line to be drawn” (p. 105).

Van Inwagen accounts for the suffering of animals through God’s need to preserve the regularity of natural law in order that evolution might produce higher-level sentient organisms, with pain being an essential, inescapable component of this process. “Every world God could have made that contains higher-level sentient creatures either contains patterns of suffering morally equivalent to those of the actual world, or else is massively irregular” (p. 114). A world without animals suffering would be massively irregular because it would need to be filled with ubiquitous miracles that would undermine the laws of nature.

The book ends with Van Inwagen addressing the issue of the hiddenness of God, in that God does not present us all with unmistakable evidence of his existence in the form of “signs and wonders.” The fact that this does not occur can be used to argue for the non-existence of God, and Van Inwagen considers how this is so and how a theist may respond to such an argument. He presents a story of a world without evil, but in which God remains hidden in the manner described, and explains that if unmistakable evidence were provided in such a situation it would undermine the possibility of his plan of atonement succeeding. The author draws an analogy with sexism and how God has already given us all the evidence we need to be convinced see that men and women are equal, yet sexism is still a reality. Beyond this, if God were to provide us with miraculous evidence, the best that would be achieved would be a sullen compliance, not the “real transformation of the attitude of fallen male humanity towards women.” The same would apply if he was to provide unmistakable miraculous evidence for his existence.

This is a work that is an exemplar of the analytic tradition in philosophy, in that it demonstrates a high level of technical precision, clarity and rigor in its treatment of the topic. Thus the book requires paying careful attention to the flow of each argument, and a certain tolerance for abstract thinking. It has extensive footnotes (and more than three pages of cited works) for the reader that wishes to pursue the topic further.

Van Inwagen helpfully points out that this is a theoretical discussion of the argument from evil, and thus his approach to the problem of evil in this book would not be appropriate as a means of comforting the grieving; readers would do well to keep Van Inwagen’s stated purpose in mind. Those seeking a less philosophical approach to the topic should consider two other, less technical, books on the problem of evil also published in 2006 by prominent Christian authors, namely Unspeakable by Os Guinness (published by HarperCollins) and Evil and the Justice of God by N.T. Wright (published by InterVarsity Press).

Paul Rayner
Denver Seminary
June 2009



William Farris

Interesting that the author assumes naturalism as a fact and that it is entailed in evolutionary processes. The whole point of arguing about evil is explaining why would a loving God create the world, especially living creatures with an ever higher ability to perceived pain, by such a horrible process of trial and error, as Bertrand Russell vividly describes in his "Why I am Not a Christian." Assuming naturalism (natural law), as Van Inwagen does, is phenomenally counter-productive in the problem of evil argument for the theist. The argument from evil is an argument from the human sense of what is just and right, and what comprises moral and gratuitous evil. It is the natural, or gratuitous, form of evil that is so difficult to cope with philosophically.

Paul Rayner

Thanks for the comments William.

Just to be clear, Van Inwagen's notion of the regularity of the laws of nature does not deny the existence of miracles (c.f., pp. 114-5). He is not advocating philosophical naturalism, but rather seeking to show that "natural" evil cannot be avoided without some kind of massive irregular world - a defect at least as great as the defect of containing patterns of suffering morally equivalent in the actual world (c.f., pp. 120-6). Most of the chapter addresses the global argument from animal suffering, but does address the local argument (i.e., the case of "Rowe's Fawn") on pp. 124-6.

Overall, he is arguing that there is "some important intrinsic or extrinsic good that depends on the existence of higher-level sentient creatures; this good is of sufficient magnitude that it outweighs the patterns of suffering found in the actual world" (p. 114). On page 115 he gives a good example of what a massively irregular world might look like.

His entire argument is worth working through in detail, and a short book review such as this cannot even begin to do it justice. I think he makes a strong case, and am interested if a close read of chapter 7 would address your concerns about his approach being so counterproductive.