More on the evil god challenge

If you haven’t read it already then please go and read my earlier post on this subject entitled, ‘A response to the problem of an ‘evil god’ as raised by Stephen Law’. Have you done that? Good, now I can continue.


Law’s articulation of the evil god challenge has raised some discussion among philosophers about the power of theistic arguments and the evidential problem of evil. The most interesting exchange has been between the Catholic philosopher Edward Feser and Stephen Law which can be seen online at either of their blogs.

It is too much to ask for a summary of their exchange here as it has been long and quite prickly (to put it nicely)!

I have claimed that the concept of evil god is demonstrably irrational and that this is extremely damaging to the evil god challenge.

However Law, in response to Feser at least, has claimed:

“Showing an evil God is impossible is irrelevant…”

This appears to be quite an odd contention since the whole purpose of the evil god challenge, as originally proposed, was to set up an explanatory hypothesis which was equal to Christian theism to explain arguments such as the arguments from a First Causer or modern design arguments for a Designer.

Law himself even states:

“…the evil God challenge is a way of developing the evidential problem of evil in such a way that very many standard theistic responses are neutralized or revealed to be hopelessly inadequate. Because, it turns out, those responses work just as well in defence of an evil god.”

But if the evil god hypothesis can be shown to be irrational, and yet the concept of the Christian God has survived millennia of philosophical scrutiny (by contrast), then the latter becomes a far more reasonable conclusion for the classical arguments for a morally undefined God.

So on what basis does Law think a demonstration of the logical incoherence of evil god would be ineffective in answering the challenge? Law says:

“My point is that even if it could be shown that an evil god is an impossibility (and that does seem to be your [Feser’s] strategy, after all), we might still ask, “But supposing it wasn’t an impossibility, would an evil god not in any case be pretty conclusively ruled out on empirical grounds – e.g. given the amount of good we observe?” If the answer to that question is “yes”, then the challenge remains to explain why a good god is not similarly ruled out.”


“My argument is that there is, on the face of it, overwhelming empirical evidence AGAINST the good god hypothesis (whether or not this god is thought of as a person, as being morally responsible, etc. personhood is not required). Most people accept this, unless (i) they’re religious, and (ii) it dawns on them what the consequences of this are regarding their belief in a good god, when many suddenly get radically skeptical!

The challenge is, then to explain, why, if the evil god hypothesis is ruled out pretty conclusively on empirical grounds, the same is not true of the good god hypothesis.”

And also,

“However, Craig (William Lane Craig) ALSO thinks there’s excellent empirical evidence that the universe is of finite age (started with the Big Bang). Similarly, even if an evil god was ruled out conceptually, there could still ALSO be overwhelming empirical evidence against such a being. Actually, there is. THAT’s my point. But then why is there not equally good evidence against the good god hypothesis? THAT is the challenge.”

Nov. 6th 2011 on Edward Feser’s blog

But my response to this question was always no. I don’t agree that there IS an evidential argument for God (or against evil god) on the basis of the amount of good we see in the world around us. My response was that one could not argue for either a good or an evil god based purely on observing good and evil in the world. I deny there is a case which can be made either way on that basis (even a probabilistic one). ‘Goods’ can be an evil god’s route to greater evils. This is a response which has been universal amongst all the Christian philosophers I have read who have responded to this problem. William Lane Craig rejects this kind of inductive argument and he points out that Christian philosophers Michael Bergmann and Jeff Brower have responded to Law by stating:

“…no traditional theists we know of have ever argued for God’s perfect goodness . . . by simply inferring it from the existence of some good in the world.”

Michael Bergmann and Jeffrey E. Brower, “The God of Eth and the God of Earth, “ Think, (Winter 2007), pp. 36-7

Craig also notes this comment from philosopher Steve Wykstra:

“…any being (good or evil) big enough to make the heavens and the earth gives a high conditional probability that we’d regularly be unable to discern that being’s ultimate purposes for many events around us. So our actual . . . inability to do so isn’t strong evidence that those purposes (or that being) isn’t there. . . . Just as the inscrutable evil in the world doesn’t give much evidence that there’s no totally good creator, so the inscrutable good in the world doesn’t give much evidence that there’s no totally evil Creator.”

[Personal correspondence with William Lane Craig. See the ‘Reasonable Faith’ link.]

Since I deny any inductive argument to God’s goodness on the mere existence or amount of goodness in the world Law would not be able to move the conversation into that arena as he appears to want to do if the concept of evil god is under attack. It therefore appears the evil god challenge has still been met according to my (so-called ‘sceptical theist’) answer.

Here is a short lecture by the Christian philosopher Peter S. Williams on the evil god challenge. Williams takes a view similar to Feser in arguing that evil / depravity is something parasitic upon the good. I am still undecided myself as to how strong this metaphysical argument is. Williams gives some reasons for doubting the ‘symmetry thesis’ (eg. theodicy is stronger at explaining the phenomenon of evil than anti-theodicy) and I’m open to being convinced of that but it was beyond the scope of Williams’ lecture to go into that in sufficient depth.


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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