God, Evil, and the Human Good (Part 2 of 2)

By Jonathan Pruitt (Thanks to Dr. David Baggett and Dr. Marybeth Davis Baggett for substantive feedback on this essay)

Evil and the Human Good

Continued from this post

How can Christians give a theodicy in light of Rowe’s argument and the specific cases he presents? The first step is to get clear on what we mean by “evil.” What is meant by the term “evil”? One way to answer is by ostension. We point to the Sue and Bambi cases and say, “Here is an example of evil.” But that does not do enough. We need to know what it is about the Sue and Bambi cases that makes them evil. Rowe will say that suffering is an intrinsic evil. The Bambi and Sue cases are evil because they involve gratuitous amounts of suffering.[1] But that just pushes the problem back a step. Why is suffering evil? What does it mean to say that suffering is evil? Perhaps Rowe could say that it is just self-evident that suffering is evil; we do not need to provide any explanation because we can just see it is the case. But this response confuses epistemology with ontology. What we want to know is not whether we are justified in taking suffering to be evil, but what makes suffering evil. Here, the naturalist faces a problem. As Mackie says, “Moral properties constitute so odd a cluster of properties and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of events without an all-powerful god to create them.”[2] The point here is that there is no worldview-neutral way to talk about moral properties. Since evil is a moral property, it can only be meaningfully referred to from within a given worldview. Because the problem of evil is an objection aimed at Christian theism, the term evil must refer to something Christians will recognize as such.

So, then, what is the Christian view of evil? One well-accepted definition comes from Augustine: “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”[3] In this case, evil is a privation of goodness. On the Christian view, then, evil is not a substance on par with goodness. Christianity is not dualistic in this way. Evil is parasitic on the good. But parasitic in what way? Here Augustine is again helpful. Hick points out that Augustine thought of all God’s creation as good; Augustine “lays the foundation for a Christian naturalism that rejoices in this world… seeks to share it in gratitude to God for His bountiful goodness.”[4] Included in God’s creation is a God given telos. God makes the world and everything in it for a reason so that there is a way the world should function.[5] Augustine thinks that man’s telos is “to enjoy God as the end of all, while he enjoys himself and his friend in God and for God.”[6] Evil occurs in every case where a man loves for their own sake things which are desirable only as means to an end, and seeks for the sake of something else things which ought to be loved for themselves. Thus, as far as he can, he disturbs in himself the natural order which the eternal law requires us to observe.[7] It is evil when man acts in a disordered way, when he acts contrary to God’s intention.[8]This principle can be broadened so that evil, generally speaking, can be understood as disorder and malfunction.

With this view of evil in mind, let us now consider the nature of the human good and how it might help shape a theodicy. Scripture teaches us that the good for humans has to do with how God made us. For example, when Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to get a divorce, he appealed to how God made humans to justify his answer.[9] The first chapter of Genesis also shines some light on this topic. In 1:26, we are told that humans are made, male and female, in God’s image and that we are supposed to take dominion over all the earth. The biblical anthropology is very rich and drawing out all that it has to say would take a very long time. But all that needs to be accepted here is that mankind has a telos and that telos includes three dimensions. First, being rightly related to God as his image bearers. Second, being rightly related to other humans in community, and third being rightly related to the earth as its rulers.[10] That this is the biblical view is not a controversial point.

Now, in light of this biblical view of the human telos, I want to suggest the following principle:

T1: For an agent to achieve its telos, it must do so with internal integrity.

What I mean by “internal integrity” must be specified. Achieving one’s telos is not a matter of simply getting certain inputs to generate the desired outputs. In other words, being a good human person is about more than just behaving the right way or doing the right thing. It is about being a certain kind of person. This involves a transformation of the individual from one state to another. This transformation takes place through an individual’s development of character, accomplished by habituation and the practice of the virtues. Part of the human good is that humans achieve it as humans —this is not to deny the need for God’s grace as a necessary condition, but the process also requires some real element of free human participation in the process. To see why this is so, we can run a thought experiment. Suppose that very technologically advanced aliens abducted a human named Dale. They implant into Dale’s brain a microchip that will override Dale’s normally disordered desires and give him good desires. The result will be that Dale will now live as an ideal human should. But it seems there is something deficient about Dale’s story. The good for Dale is not merely that he act like a good person, but that he would actually become a good person on his own volition. It would be better if Dale would live as a good person, not because he was made to, but because he wanted to and thus, through a slow and difficult process, began forming his character to become a good person. The end matters, but so do the means to the end. C. S. Lewis makes a similar point in the Problem of Pain. Lewis points out that in the game of chess   

…you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him – if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking – then you could not have a game at all.

There is an analogy between the integrity of a chess game and the integrity of the human pursuit of their good. Humans must “play the game” on their own if winning is going to mean anything. Humans as humans must achieve their good; there is no other possible way it could be. This is what I mean by “internal integrity.” For an agent to achieve its telos, it cannot be overridden by forces outside itself; it must pursue its telos by its own volition.

Another idea implicit in the notion of internal integrity is the reality of libertarian free will. This means our choices are, at bottom, self-determined and not determined by God. God is restricted by what libertarian agents would choose to do.[11] But what reason is there to think that we actually have this power? While this is not the place to develop a full argument, I will give at least one piece of evidence. Libertarian freedom is the commonsense view. We navigate our everyday lives under the assumption that we determine what we will do. Of course, our determinative powers are limited. For instance, I cannot will that I teleport to Mars and have it happen. But within the range of my natural powers (like the power to move my arm or not), I can will to do or not do certain things. It is only when we operate according to this presupposition that things like deliberation or weighing our options make sense. We deliberate because we think we will make an important choice, not that someone else has already made the choice for us. So we should accept that we really have libertarian freedom or pay the very high cost of saying our commonsense experience is completely mistaken.

Something very important follows from T1 and the biblical view of the human good that will allow us to say something about Sue’s case. Given that the human good includes relations with other humans, it follows that God must, as a general policy, not intervene in human interactions. If he were to intervene too often, he would compromise humanity’s internal integrity and short circuit our ability to achieve our telos. This is similar to the chess game. Once too many concessions are made, there is no point in playing the game. And, given the reality of libertarian freedom, sometimes humans may do things God does not want them to do. All things considered, it is better for humans for God to allow us autonomy and the possibility of achieving our good, even if this means that we inflict terrible evils on one another. It is better for God to do this because, if were to intervene too much, he would undermine any chance for humans to attain their good.

Some might object to what I have said so far on this basis: it is unjust for God to allow Sue to be murdered so that other humans have the chance of achieving the human good.  Such an act presupposes an "end justifies the means" ethic that is not acceptable. In response, I suggest that often there is not much difference between the way a consequentialist, "ends justify the means" ethic and a a deonitc ethic actually work out. If we imagine that a person has the moral duties to tell the truth and to protect human life, then we can easily construct thought experiments that show one principle  must be compromised for the end of keeping the other. Even in deontic ethics, there is often a means/end kind of justification for what actions ought to be taken. In the often cited "Nazi at the Door" thought experiment, we are asked to consider whether it would be right for a homeowner with Jews in the attic refrain from truth telling to the Nazi inquisitor at the door. The homeowner faces a dilemma. Should she fulfill her duty to protect human life or to tell the truth? A plausible way out of the dilemma is to say that because telling the truth would likely have a terrible consequence, she should take her duty to protect human life to override the duty to tell the truth. So the homeowner would be justified in refraining from truth telling .  Consequences matter to all plausible ethical theories and simply because a bad consequence is given as a justification for some action (or omission of some action) does not make a person an unacceptable consequentialist. In the case of Sue, the suggestion is that by allowing Sue's murder to take place, God is justified because he is in a "Nazi at the door" type scenario. He cannot both save Sue and preserve the possibility of the human good, so he allows one thing to happen for the sake of protecting another.

Besides this objection, I suspect there is another objection forthcoming. Many today at least implicitly hold a view like this. Humans are autonomous and isolated from one another. Each man is a world unto himself. Whether or not he achieves his good is up to him and him alone. In fact, what counts as "good" is up to him, too. So people are like tiny ethical islands. Each person has his own rules and his own aims and so talk of the "human good" as a justification for why God allows evil will never work. There is no "human good" that includes all humans as a community. At best, there is a "human good" in the sense that there are states of affairs that some particular human desires. If people are islands in this way, then only integrity with respect to the individual needs to be maintained. God could, then, allow Sue's abuser to think he was murdering Sue without actually murdering her.

Despite the fact that so many today hold such a view either implicitly or explicitly, this is not the Christian view. Nor has it been the view of most people throughout history. The view is a rather unfortunate result of The Enlightenment. Ancient thinkers, like  Aristotle, taught us that being a truly virtuous person is impossible to do on our own. We must live in the right kind of society – a society aimed at realizing the human good. Humans as islands will never flourish. Here Lewis is again helpful. In Mere Christianity, Lewis suggests that the metaphor of a fleet of ships on a voyage toward a particular destination captures the essence of the moral life: “The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order.” Later, Lewis adds a third part: the fleet must have a specific destination if the voyage is to be successful. Lewis concludes,

Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonising the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants it to play.

In our secular society, it often seems as the only real moral value is the first thing, staying out of each other’s way. However, on the Christian view, like other ancient views, humans cannot just stay out of each other's way and expect to flourish. This is because of what humans are by nature. As mentioned earlier, humans are made for intimate fellowship with God, each other, and to rule over the earth. This telos cannot be realized on one's own. It requires humans to cooperate together. It also means that the human good is objective and communal. What one person does has a real effect on others. Having very briefly laid out this ancient view, I commend  it to you as true. It is more robust and makes more sense out of the world than the other view. It also better explains our actual experience. Even if we like to imagine that a person's flourishing is a matter of individual effort and ideals, history has shown us this is not the case. We are all in this together, like it or not.

Now I want to say how this view provides an advantage in explaining God's justification for Sue-like cases. If the human good is objective and communal in the way just suggested, then, returning to the chess analogy, we are all playing the same game together. Or, perhaps a better way to make the point is to say that we are all members of the same football team. We each have different roles and abilities, but we share the same goal of winning the game. And this goal cannot be meaningfully reached if the rules of the game are compromised too much. If, for example, the referee counts any progress past the fifty yard line as a touchdown for us, then we may have the highest score at the end of the game, but we haven't really won. This football analogy can also help us see why God might allow cases like Sue. We can think of Sue's abuser as a particularly bad player on the team. He never shows up for practice, he does not know the rules or the plays, and he is out of shape. On game day, he racks up penalty after penalty. He breaks the rules of the game. Now, if we want to really win the game, then we cannot also want the referee to simply overlook these penalties. The rules of the game must be enforced, even though it hurts the team. It may seem like enforcing the rules makes winning the game more difficult, but actually it is required to make winning even possible. Similarly, God may be required to allow Sue-like cases if humans want even to have the possibility of attaining their good, even though there are very bad "penalties"  associated with Sue-like cases.

That said, I want to make two important clarifications. First, I do not intend to say that human life is a game. Being human is a very serious matter indeed. My analogy of human life to a game, especially in an attempt to explain Sue-like cases, may unintentionally communicate that I do not take Sue's suffering to be very bad. That is not the case. The analogy to games is only intended to illustrate the principle of internal integrity that I have proposed. In no way should it be taken as an attempt to diminish the suffering of Sue. Second, even though the idea of the human good and internal integrity might help us make sense of why God allows even terrible evils as a general rule, we should exercise epistemic humility here. I do not mean to suggest that this is the reason God allowed Sue’s case. Alston is right; in most cases we cannot know what the actual reason is for God allowing an evil to occur. At best we can make some “theodical suggestions.”[12]

But how can T1 and the biblical notion of the human good help us make sense of a case like Bambi’s?  Here we must remember that the human good includes care of the earth. Perhaps God’s intention for human care of the earth is that we were to be so meticulous that we would prevent cases like Bambi’s from ever occurring. At first, this might seem absurd, but that may be only because we humans have strayed so far from God’s intention for us. In a world in which every human properly exercised his or her responsibility to care for God’s creation, I suspect there would be vastly fewer Bambi-like cases. And, once humans actually achieved dominion of the earth, perhaps no Bambi-like cases would ever occur. So part of the answer for why there are Bambi-like cases may be that humans continue to fail in their responsibility as care-givers of the earth. Another part of the answer comes directly from Scripture. Paul says that nature itself is “subject to frustration”[13] because “humanity’s fall into sin marred the ‘goodness’ of God’s creation.”[14] Human sin, then, is the cause of natural evil. And, given that the welfare of the earth is so closely connected with the human telos, God cannot, as a general rule, intervene in nature without compromising the internal integrity of humanity. Humans, if we ever hope to be what God intends, must willingly take on their responsibility as caretakers of the earth and its redemption and their redemption are inextricably linked.

If what I have said is correct, then God has good reason to allow Bambi and Sue cases. This undermines Rowe’s R1, and thus his argument no longer goes through. But before moving to the conclusion, let me consider two objections.

First, the atheologian might say, “All this talk of the human good and human responsibility is very noble, but couldn’t have God lessened the suffering of both Bambi and Sue and not compromise the internal integrity of humanity?” This objection presses an ambiguity in my argument, specifically the idea that God could not intervene as a “general rule.” If the rule is generally applied, then there is no reason God could not intervene in any particular case. But from this it also follows that God could intervene in Sue or Bambi’s case and not compromise human integrity. No particular case is essential to human integrity. However, if God intervenes too much, then human integrity will be compromised. So at least some evils must still be allowed. We can reason that those evils that occur must be allowed or else human integrity would be compromised.[15] So if God prevented Sue’s case or a Bambi-like case from occurring, there would be some evil equally bad or worse he would have to allow somewhere else. Therefore, this objection does not defeat the argument.

Second, the atheologian might object because, he says, I have described a morally hopeless situation. Humans, as they are now, will never develop to the point where we would prevent Sue and Bambi cases. A long list of gross human failures even from the past thirty days could be easily produced. If T1 is right, then the hope of ever realizing a just world is absurd. We are like a terminally ill cancer patient who suffers tremendous pain and has no chance of recovery. Given the hopelessness of the situation, the only good we can reasonably hope for is that doctor would give us some drug to deaden the pain. So God should realize that since humans are in such a sad state, human integrity is not worth the suffering because it will never be realized. What is the point of allowing cases like Sue’s if it will never amount to anything? But, on this point the atheologian is mistaken. We Christians have yet more to say. Our plight is not hopeless because God himself has become one of us. God has done something dramatic and heroic on the part of creatures like Bambi, even more so for humans like Sue. In the person of Jesus, God has given humanity a way to be truly human and a way to end human and animal suffering. Through Jesus, God has acted to overcome human sin in a way that does not compromise the internal integrity of humanity because Jesus is fully human. And since Jesus is incarnate and fully human, he makes a way for humans to overcome the problem of sin as humans. Apart from him, humans are unable to achieve our God-given telos. But with him, we can become what God intends. In every way, Jesus has redeemed humanity from our sin.


In this essay, we have seen a promising way for Christians to respond to the problem of evil. We saw that God can allow some evil if it realizes a worthwhile good and that he is limited by what is logically possible. Further, we saw that allowing humans autonomy to achieve their good is worthwhile and that this entails that God cannot, as a general rule, intervene in areas of human responsibility. Finally, we saw that God, in Jesus, has acted in a way to solve the problem of evil while simultaneously preserving human integrity.



[1] Rowe. 3.

[2] J. L. Mackie, The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982). 115.

[3] Augustine, The City of God, XI, CHAP. 9.  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/120111.htm

[4] John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 2d ed. (London: Macmillan, 1977). 45.

[5]See Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (New York: Octagon Books, 1983). 132.

[6] Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 22, chapter 78.

[7] Augustine, Contra Faustum, Book 22, chapter 78.

[8] A similar point is made by N.T. Wright in N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006). Kindle location 343. He says that evil in the OT is understood as “idolatry” or “dehumanization.” This is consistent with the idea that evil is disorder or malfunction.

[9] See Matt 19-1-6.

[10] These three relations are inspired by a similar list mentioned in John Randall Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology, Zacchaeus Studies Theology (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991). 17.

[11] Sometimes, defenders of libertarian freedom are accused of improperly limiting God. But this accusation is wrong for two reasons.  First, God is still fully omnipotent on the libertarian view. God can do whatever is logically possible for him to do. Second, to say that God chose to create agents with libertarian freedom does not mean that God has fewer options open to him at all. The opposite is true. The defender of libertarian freedom thinks that God could have determined everything; that is his prerogative. However, the defender also thinks God has the power to create finite, self-determining creatures. God has more options and not less on this view. It is the compatibilist that is, arguably, artificially limiting God’s power.

[12] William Alston, “The Inductive Argument from Evil,” in The Evidential Argument from Evil, ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder (Bloomington, ID.: Indiana University Press, 1996).103.

[13] Romans 8:22

[14] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1996). 515.

[15] This response is inspired by a similar discussion in David  Baggett and Walls Jerry L., Good God : The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 144. Here they discuss an analogy from Peter van Inwagen aimed at showing that if God intervenes too much, he will defeat the law like regularity in a world.


Photo: "Struggle for Life" by Harpagornis