Gratuitous Evil and the Problem of Evil Stated

In analytic philosophy of religion, the phrase “gratuitous evil” refers to those evils which God could have prevented without losing any greater good or or incurring any evils in removing it. Thus it is “gratuitous”, pointless evil which doesn’t serve any ends or purpose.

Therefore an argument from evil against God’s goodness follows a two step reasoning:

(1) There are gratuitous evil in the world.

(2) If God is good, he would prevent all gratuitous evil.


(3) God is not good and/or does not exist.

Many philosophers have focused upon critiquing and arguing against (1), the empirical claim that there are some evils in the world which doesn’t serve any good. William Rowe, whose argument from gratuitous evil is the most famous one, speaks of a lone fawn who dies an extremely excruciating death unnoticed in a forest fire. Such suffering by the fawn seems to serve no purpose whatsoever and seem to be completely gratuitous. Many philosophers have focused upon such particular horrors and tried to explain how such suffering does serve some good, etc.

Peter Van Inwagen and the No Minimum Evil Argument

However there has been some philosophers who have attacked, not (1), but (2) instead, that the existence of completely pointless and gratuitous evil is compatible with God’s goodness. Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder in their paper Is Theism Compatible with Gratuitous Evil? points us to a so far unanswered objection to (2) by Peter Van Inwagen in his paper The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy.

The essence of Van Inwagen’s argument is that the argument from gratuitous evil onlymakes sense if there is such a thing as a “minimum” amount of evil necessary to accomplish some good ends or prevent some evils. Howard-Snyder posits the following story to illustrate Van Inwagen’s point:

Imagine an enormous pool of possible instances of intense suffering each of which God has it within His power to permit or prevent. Suppose that He must permit some, but not all, in order to secure the goods involved in His purposes. So He must select from the pool. As He selects, he asks of each one: “Do the greater goods require the permission of it or something (or some things)comparably bad, given the amount of suffering I’m already permitting?” If the answer is “yes,” then He puts it on His right; if the answer is “no,” He puts it on His left. When this selection process is complete, three things will be true. First,for any possible instance of intense suffering, either it will be on God’s right or on His left. Second, on His right will be a set of instances of suffering the collective badness of which is such that God must permit no more or no less in order to secure the goods involved in His purposes. (What if for some reason God were to prevent one of those instances of suffering on His right from occurring? Then He would have to reach over to His left to find some other instance or instances of total comparable badness to permit; otherwise, the relevant greater goods would not occur.) Third, if we were to add up the amount of suffering in the instances on His right, we’d eventually arrive at a precise amount. That amount would be the amount of intense suffering that must be permitted in order for the greater goods involved in God’s purposes to be secured, and if there was any less suffering than that amount permitted, those goods would not all be realized and God’s purposes would be thwarted, at least in part. It follows that, and this is the crucial point to which the preceding has been leading, the greater goods involved in God’s purposes require the permission of a minimum amount of intense suffering. This presupposes that there is a minimum amount of intense suffering that God must permit to secure those goods.

But, Van Inwagen argues, there is no such magical number or “minimum amount”. To cite Howard-Snyder’s representation of his argument:

To suppose that there is such a minimum amount is like supposing that, if God’s purposes required an impressively tall prophet to appear at a certain place and time, there is a minimum height such a prophet must have and if he were the least bit shorter God’s purposes would not be served; it is like supposing that if the state’s purposes required a fine to deter illegal parking, there is a minimum dollar-and-cents figure that would suffice,and if the fine were one cent less, it would not be a significant deterrent. Of course, if there is no minimum height, no minimum fine, and no minimum amount of intense suffering, it is absolutely impossible for God or the state to permit or produce it,and so it is absurd to insist that either should do so.

In short, the argument from gratuitous evil makes no sense because there isn’t such a minimum amount of evil just right to accomplish some good. Goods and evils are qualitative properties which isn’t all that easy to convert into some calculus and thereby to arrive at some precise number. There would inevitably appear to us that there are some evils in this world which seem to be pointless, gratuitous.

Better to Best World for God to Create?

To make a slightly related point, there is another interesting philosophical question as to whether there is such a thing as a “best of all possible worlds” which God has to create. Daniel Howard-Snyder discusses the possibility of God creating a “Surpassable World” in his paper “How an Unsurpassable Being Can Create a Surpassable World”. In there he assumes that there would be an infinite number of worlds, but no “best world”, which God can arrange in a linear sequence into infinity according to how “good” they are, and discusses if God is justified in actualising any such world for which there are better worlds out there.

But if we might adapt Van Inwagen’s insight from earlier, why assume that such a quantification of the goodness of worlds is possible? Suppose, following Snyder, that God excludes all the worlds which doesn’t meet some minimum requirements, e.g. everyone must have lead lives which are worthwhile, whether in this life or the next, there are no evils which could not be redeemed eventually given sufficient time, etc. One can note that Christ speaks of those who have “already receive their reward” who are satisfied in this world, and of course I believe in annihilationism which means that damnation doesn’t entail a prolonging of suffering, so for the “satisfied damned”, at least they had their worthwhile life on earth which God extinguishes at the Judgement for one reason or another. Thus, the damned won’t go through pointless suffering which doesn’t do them any good, while those who have suffered in this world will find their redemption in the next, etc.

Even after God excludes all the worlds which doesn’t meet his requirement, there are still a lot of worlds. Now, let us pose a question, is it possible for God to assign a number to them and order them in a linear fashion from better to better? I would argue no for the following reasons. Assuming that every world would contain people who would enjoy eternal life, the number of “goods” which each world contains will simply increase unto infinity, given the ever increasing joy of the redeemed. Thus, all your worlds would essentially contain an “infinity” of goodness and no evils left in the end, ex hypothesi from earlier. As such, there is simply no way of ordering sets which are all equally infinitely large (and no, there is no distinction between goodness which are calculated by integers and those by real numbers!).

Therefore, assuming the “minimum” which I’ve stated, there is really no “better world” out there which God could have created. They’re all equally good.

Conclusion: That’s Just the Way things Are

What all this simply implies is that perhaps there is a limit to how much “theodicy”, or explaining why God allows some evils to occur, we can do. In the end, the very ambiguous and “fuzzy” texture of our lives and experience of happiness and sorrows means that we can’t explain or justify everything. Not everything will prove to be necessary nor does it make sense to say that every particle of evil and every moment of pain will prove to have its place in the grand scheme of things. Shit happens, and we have to learn to live with it, not explain it.

Even though in some general sense, we know that all things work together for the good to them who love him (Romans 8:28), and that it is both proper, and right, to try to make sense of the evils in our lives, but in the end, explanations can only go so far. There are some evils and horrors which are so senseless that all explanations are in vain, which particularity simply cannot be subsumed into some overarching system or framework, and which we can only endure by setting our eyes firmly upon the dawn which we hope shall rise again after the shadow has passed and burns out the memory of those evil. Rather than imagining “what might have been” or better scenarios or worlds (which we have demonstrated there are none), we can only continue moving forward within the world which we have been given by God.

In the end, it is not for us to reject the providential will or wisdom, to imagine alternative worlds or scenarios, attempting to “deduce” some better situations from some axiological system, believing that we can improve on our past. We can only hope that there could be a “redemption of sorrows”, a healing of the memory, whereby not in system or explanations, but in our lived experience under divine grace, we treasure and incorporate the good, learn from our mistakes, and for some sorrows too painful to bear, learn to forgive, forget and live with those evils that we might continue onward in our journey towards God’s endless life, when the vision of the beauty and glory to come will overcome all evils and wipe every tear.

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