Answering the Probabilistic Problem of Evil.

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The thesis that evil and suffering in the world disproves the existence of God is no longer defended by philosophers. Philosopher and professor Peter Van Inwagen of the University of Notre Dame explains that “It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God. That no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended” (1).

Rather, having given up on that approach, proponents rather focus on the probabilistic version of the argument. Here she claims that given all the suffering and evil in the world it is highly improbable, as opposed to being absolutely certain, that a caring, personal God exists. Philosopher William Lane Craig provides the following examination, “In the probabilistic version of the problem, the admission is made that it is possible that God and evil co-exist, but it is insisted that it is highly improbable that both God and the evil in the world exist. Thus, the Christian theist is stuck with two beliefs which tend to undermine each other. Given that the evil in the world is real, it is highly improbable that God exists” (5). However, there is good reason to doubt this conclusion. The late philosopher William Alston, in one of his influential articles on the evidential problem of evil, lists six cognitive limitations that human beings possess that makes it impossible for us to judge whether or not God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world (2). He identifies the following (3):

[1] – A lack of data. Our ignorance of the distant future, or the distant past; our ignorance of the ultimate constitution of the universe, the secrets of the human heart.

[2] – Complexity greater than we can handle. For example, trying to understand different systems of natural law – in which different laws of nature operate – we have no clue about what systems are available to God.

[3] – The difficulty of knowing what is metaphysically possible. How do we know what logically imaginable worlds are actually metaphysically possible?

[4] – Our ignorance of the full range of possibilities. We don’t know how these are restricted.

[5] – Our ignorance of the full range of values. This is to say there may be unknown goods, that God brings about, that we are not even aware of.

[6] – The limits of our capacity to make well-considered value judgements. That is to say, to be able to compare different possible worlds with a view toward determining which world would be the best.

Alston’s six points seem to nicely capture the limited nature of man’s cognition. When it comes to man’s ability to predict future outcomes and our inability, Craig explains, to judge that “… it is not at all improbable that natural and moral evils are part of the means which he [God] uses to bring people into his kingdom and to give them eternal life and everlasting happiness – in comparison to which, the sufferings of this life will diminish to infinitesimal proportions” (4). Alston would agree, “We are simply not in a position to justifiably assert that God would have no sufficient reason for permitting evil. And if that is right, the probabilistic argument from evil is in no better shape than its late, lamented, logical cousin.” Thus the skeptic’s probabilistic argument from the problem of evil against God’ existence far exceeds his epistemic capability. After all, how could limited man ever have full comprehension of all possible outcomes and possibilities to certain events? According to Craig, “ As long as it’s just possibly true, it proves that there is a possible world in which God and Evil co-exist.” And as long as this is the case the argument’s intellectual impact, though still remaining important and worthy of intellectual discussion, is rendered unconvincing at best.


1. Peter Van Inwagen quoted by Daniel Howard-Snyder in The Evidential Argument from Evil (2008). p. 151.

2. Alston, W. 1991. Philosophical Perspectives of 1991.

3. William Lane Craig vs. A.C. Grayling. “Belief in God Makes Sense in Light of Tsunamis.” Available.

4. William Lane Craig vs. A.C. Grayling. Ibid.

5. Craig, W. The Problem of Evil. Available.

5 responses to “Answering the Probabilistic Problem of Evil.

  1. Why is there such a problem with theologians on the subject of evil? The Bible quite plainly states that Satan is the “god of this world” and that he is the “prince of the power of the air”. I can never understand why he seems to be totally ignored whenever the topic of evil comes up, as much of it obviously down to his influence. Satan was in the Garden of Eden at the beginning, and he will be around right up to the end of the age, as confirmed in Revelation. What’s the problem?

  2. Pingback: Q&A – How Do I Deal With Online Village Atheists? | James Bishop's Theology & Apologetics.·

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