My Debate With David Wood on the Problem of Evil

As many of you know I've been preparing for my public debate with David Wood of "" on the problem of evil. The question is this: "Does the extent of suffering in our world make the existence of God implausible?" The debate is not far away. It takes place on Saturday October 7th at 7 PM, in Norfolk VA, at the Old Dominion University, BAL 104. If you're in the area and can make it please do. The transcript (and video) will be available afterward with comments by Victor Reppert and probably Paul Copan on his side, and Andrea Weisberger and Richard Carrier on my side (plans still in progress). If anyone has a book or essay or link on either side of this question, please share it here.


Joe Otten said...

Nearly all christian objections to the problem of evil seem to amount to one thing, obfuscated as far as possible.

The objection is a denial of our understanding of what good and evil really are. If we understood them properly, it is suggested, then the problem of evil would vanish.

Why doesn't this work? It's actually quite simple. It is claimed that God is good. For that claim to have any meaning, we must have some understanding of the word good. It is no good saying I don't know what x means but I know that God is x. So what? You're not saying anything about God with that sort of statement.

And of course, this is not what is really happening. We do have a reasonable common understanding of what 'good' is, that a good person will tend to act with compassion, to prevent suffering and so on. This is the sort of thing implied in the claim that God is good, and simultaneously denied in theodicy.

People who meaningfully claim that God is good are impaled on the first horn of Euthypho's Dilemma - that the good is prior to God, and constrains God if he is to be good.

Advocates of theodicy are impaled on the second horn. Good is simply whatever God is. That could be anything, and there is no obvious reason we should care about it. In particular all the suffering in this, the best of possible worlds, must be good. And so good christians should not try to prevent it.

Steven Carr said...

I'm sure that David Wood thinks it right for God to allow children to die of malaria and cholera, but would never tolerate an evil like one of the original authors of the Bible getting somebody's name wrong.

I mean, there is evil and there are things God will not stand for.

Jon said...

Be aware that Christians do respond to Euthyphro's dilemma by doing what they call "splitting the horns" of the dilemma. Good is neither what God "says" is good, nor is it what God "sees" as good, but good is a part of God's nature (i.e. one with his essence) and so the Christian does not need to accept the dilemma.

I have to admit that when I was a Christian I found this response to be persuasive, and I'm not sure I feel any differently even now. So if Wood takes that approach he'll defintely find Christian support. Or if he's a Calvinist he may just say that good is what God says is good and he may feel comfortable with that. I was not a Calvinist, so that did not work for me.

Also, John, you should expect him to argue that you have no way of recognizing good and evil without God, and hence you cannot object to evil without first admitting God. That in my view is also a powerful point. Either you need a coherent theory of morality without God or if you think morality is completely subjective you would have to claim that you are merely taking on the Christian assumption that there is such a thing as good and evil and you are showing that the Christian position is internally contradictory, and therefore false.

nsfl said...

It's Old Dominion, John, not Dominican!!!! The state itself has been referred to as "Old Dominion" since the English Civil War because of King Charles II. Did you ever know that Virginia was once the fifth country of the UK???

See "En dat Virginia quintam".

My wife went to ODU.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Daniel, it's now corrected.

I do feel as though I have a Christmas present for Mr. Wood and for others to see, and I cannot wait to have him open it.

Anonymous said...

Jon Curry, take a look at how I dealt with the Euthypro dilemma here.

DagoodS said...

Jon Curry: … but good is a part of God's nature (i.e. one with his essence)…

You found this persuasive as a response to Euthyphro? Curious. Maybe you can help me then, as I can’t seem to get Christians to response on this defense.

How do you Venn diagram that out? Taking one circle as “God” and another as His Nature, or Essence, or whatever term you choose, how do the circles intersect?

What part of God’s character (or essence) is NOT God? If God’s Essence Circle is larger than God, and the God circle is smaller and interior, then God is not completely part of his Essence. This would fall on the “God must do it because it is Good” horn. If the God circler is larger than the Essence Circle, and the Essence is interior to God, then part of God is:

a) not Good;
b) not part of his Essence; and
c) the part that God’s actions are being rationally bound by his Essence must be in the part OUTSIDE of his Essence, so it is not part of God’s Essence that he is bound by his essence! (I can proof that out, if need be.)

What part of God is not within this Good Character or Good Essence part? This falls squarely on the horn “It is good because God does it.” Sure it adds on “…according to his Essence” but it leaves part of a non-good Essence out there in God!

The Venn Circles could intersect and not be interior to each other, but then we are left explaining what parts of God are not in His Essence, and what parts of His Essence are not in God, which sounds like more trouble than benefit.

Finally we could have the circles be exactly overlapping and God is exactly the same as his essence. The problem then is that “God is good” provides us no new information about God and we end up with a tautology. And the horn is “It is Good because God does it.”

Frankly, what I see with the introduction of “God’s Essence” (or God’s Character, I use them interchangeable here, but if there is a difference, please explain) is a weak attempt to blur the Euthyphro Dilemma, with an introduction of an impossible concept. Remember, the Dilemma is extremely easy to respond to, if you only answer one question at a time. Now, if you have to stay consistent with those answers…whole different story!

So…can you do me a favor and Venn this out (figuratively with words)? Maybe I am missing something.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

This is, frankly, a hard debate to lose. A couple things I'd do, though:

1) Cite Matthew 7:9-11 to show that "good" must mean the same thing for God as humans.

2) Argue that there are instance of evil in the world that no human would ever be forgiven for not preventing if able to. (The Rwanda genocide is a good example of this, since there are actually some bad feelings that the U.N. could have done more).

The biggest problem may be figthing off red herrings--appeals to emotion, "how does the atheist define evil?", etc. Jeff Lowder does a good job of fending off the second by presenting the problem of evil as a challenge to the internal coherence of theism.

exapologist said...


A couple of points come to mind, although I doubt if they’re anything you don’t already know:

(i) Regarding the logical problem of evil: Plantinga's free will defense often gets misused in such debates.
(a)His defense does *NOT* establish that God and evil caused by persons are *logically* compatible. It only shows that it's *epistemically* possible -- i.e., possible *for all we know* -- that every creaturely essence does at least one wrong action in every possible world in which they exist. But if so, then the force of the point varies with who's bearing the burden of proof at any given moment. Thus, if the theist is trying to show a non-theist that he shouldn’t have a problem with evil caused by persons, then the point is pretty much useless. But the point has force if the non-theist is trying to show a theist that he should have a problem with evil caused by persons.
(b) His defense does nothing to mitigate the force of the problem of natural evil, especially the problem of billions of years of pointless animal suffering.

(ii) Regarding the evidential problem of evil: It seems clear that the atheist has the upper hand here. Whether or not God and evil are logically compatible, Hume was surely right that we wouldn’t expect a world like ours on the hypothesis of theism. The main reply of the theist these days is Wykstra’s CORNEA defense: given our ignorance and God’s omniscience, we wouldn’t expect to know what reasons God has for permitting the horrendous evils our world contains. A standard reply is that such a response leads to a kind of moral skepticism. An excellent collection of papers on the evidential problem of evil is the one edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder: The Evidential Problem of Evil.

Another standard response by theists is Van Inwagen’s. His essays on this can be found in his God, Knowledge, and Mystery. I know he just published a book devoted to the problem of evil, but I can’t think of the name off hand.

Good luck!


Bill said...


I won't speak for Jon, but I will try to lay out some of my understanding of how I used to understand the issue.

I had been taught it was impossible to divide God's nature (Divine Simplicity). So I don't think most Christians would buy into the using Venn diagrams, even if it is merely used to clarify our understanding. Earlier I would have considered the problem a category error (that I couldn't fully explain) and would have thought the problem was just a philosophical game.

I don't know if it helps, but my understanding was informed a Stand to Reason article found here.

The general strategy used to defeat a dilemma is to show that it's a false one. There are not two options, but three.

The Christian rejects the first option, that morality is an arbitrary function of God's power. And he rejects the second option, that God is responsible to a higher law. There is no Law over God.

The third option is that an objective standard exists (this avoids the first horn of the dilemma). However, the standard is not external to God, but internal (avoiding the second horn). Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness.

Could God simply decree that torturing babies was moral? "No," the Christian answers, "God would never do that." It's not a matter of command. It's a matter of character.

So the Christian answer avoids the dilemma entirely. Morality is not anterior to God--logically prior to Him--as Bertrand Russell suggests, but rooted in His nature. As Scott Rae puts it, "Morality is not grounded ultimately in God's commands, but in His character, which then expresses itself in His commands."[9] In other words, whatever a good God commands will always be good.

I know this doesn't fully escape the "God is good because God does it" response. But I would have hung my hat on the fact that there is a difference between how I know something is true, and why it is true (ontologically).

DagoodS said...

Thank you, Bill Curry

I understand you are not speaking for Jon Curry, but I will still respond to your post. I am extremely familiar with that article. (If you are interested, I tore it apart Here although you do not need to waste your time.)

I would arguably state that the reason you cannot place it into a Venn diagram, is that you realize such a demonstration destroys the argument. It is not that you cannot, it is that you realize the danger of doing so. (Again, I understand where you, personally, are coming from, so don’t take this as harsh as it may sound.)

My record remains unblemished. I cannot get a single person that holds to this theory to Venn it out after I point out the shortcomings.

To avoid saying that God does it because it is “good”, the argument is made that God does it because he is bound by his Character. Even the article recognizes the tautology of saying “God is good because Good is God” so it creates this alleged third option of God being good because it God is bound by his Character.

You notice the article makes the assertion of God’s character, but never actually defines God’s character.

The preeminent question is this—What is in God that is not in God’s Character? If they are one and the same, then the entire article fails—it is reduced to “It is Good because God does it.”

The author has now created something—“God’s Character” that is claimed to be different than God. This is where the Venn comes in. How? If it is not the same, How is does it interact with the being known as “God”? Is it not included? Is it encompassed? Does it encompass? Does it intersect? As I point out, any option gives greater problems, not less.

In the end, the only thing the proponent can revert to is that “God” and “God’s Character” are one and the same. If so, then the premise of the article—a third option of “God’s Character” fails.

Personally, since we are talking about John W. Loftus’ debate, if I was planning to debate a Christian, and I anticipated Euthyphro would come up, and I anticipated they would use “God’s Character” as a defense, I would pre-plan a power point of the Venn Diagrams of “God’s Character” circle within “God” and challenge my opponent to point out what part of God is not within his Character.

Jon said...

Hey John,

I read your link, and it basically seems to me that your answer to my response is that claiming that good is in fact simply a part of God's nature isn't helpful because this doesn't tell us what is good and what isn't. Also this appears circular since no argument can really be offered to justify an ethical claim.

Truthfully I'm really not sure what I think about this any more, and frankly I have to admit that the Christian answer confuses me as well, but I'll offer what I would say in response as a Christian.

I would say that I'm not trying to show you what in fact is moral, but I'm only trying to show that logically God can be the source of moral values and escape Euthryphro's dilemma. When I was a Christian I was not a presuppositionalist or an empiricist or a rationalist. I called myself a foundationalist, which had a lot to do with Aquinas. I would say that there are certain truths I know but I can't argue for them. The truths of logic are one. I can't argue for them, but to deny them is self defeating, so I must accept them. The same was true of moral claims. I couldn't really argue for them, but to deny them resulted in absurdities. But I only affirm the foundational ones, such as those about love, truth, and justice. With those fundamental principles I can know whether or not a claim is right or wrong morally, simply by applying logic. So I'm comfortable that I can't prove a foundational moral claim, I'm comfortable that you have just as much access to moral truth as I do (except that I have the added advantage of the Bible, which supposedly teaches other great moral things), but most importantly I'm comfortable that good is neither what God sees as good, nor what he says is good, but good is God and God is good.

Perhaps it's just hazy enough to allow a Christian to feel comfortable.


Let me do my best to reply to you, but frankly these things are kind of confusing to me so I'll respond to you as best I understand you and maybe you could help me understand if I'm missing something.

I would definitely side with Bill in that you can't separate God from his nature. Nothing is really seperate from its nature. A zebra is by essense a four footed mammal, etc. In God this is even more so true, because not only is his essence one with his nature, but his very existence is part of that nature. He's a necessary being.

So something is good because it is part of what God is. That sounds weird I know, and it is. It is related to God's simplicity. God is love. God is truth. God is justice. But because God is simple these things are really one in God. We make these distinctions because we are composite creatures, but in God they are indistinguishable.

As I said above, I can't argue for these things, but they are known to me as the laws of logic are known to me. Seems that circular is the wrong word for describing how I know them, so I guess I'd say they are "foundational."

This may sound like mumbo jumbo. Sounds a little like that to me as well. But it definitely worked on me. It probably helps that part of the argument is that you can't exactly understand it (the whole simplicity thing) but at least you've escaped contradiction. So you're OK. Do you think that works?

samskeptic said...

I see two fundamental problems with the free will defense. The first is that free will is not the same as free action. One can freely will evil without being granted the ability to carry out those evil actions. In fact, the Bible recounts many instances of times where the enemies of God desire to harm God's people, and yet are prevented due to divine intervention. In those instances, did God override the free will of his enemies? No, but he mitigated or prevented the results of those evil volitions. Indeed, one can even say that the life to come, from a Christian perspective is one such that the evil continue to desire evil, yet are constrained from doing so (by being confined to hell). If this is permissible for the next world, why not the current one? One can imagine a world in which murderers freely will evil and yet when they shoot someone the bullet dissolves as soon as it leaves the revolver, or the knife turns to rubber when it strikes the victim. In such a world men could still be free to hate good and God, and yet not free to carry out their evil volitions.

The second problem is that in most instances where personal moral evils are committed, there are actually two sets of volitions in play - those of the person(s) committing the evil act, and the one(s) who are affected by it. For example, in the case of a rape, there is the will of the rapist, who wishes sexual gratification, and that of his victim, who wishes to excape the situation without being violated. In such scenarios, where one will is obviously bent on a moral evil, and the other is bent on a moral good, why is the evil will allowed to prevail? Why is the terrified woman being raped not allowed to actualize her free will and flee, while the rapist is allowed to actualize his evil will to violate the woman?

On a more global scale, why is it that despite the free will of millions to end genocide, feed the hungry, and establish justice, that those goals elude us? If God is so enamored of free will, why does God allows enormous will for peace and justice to be thwarted again and again?

Blue Devil Knight said...

Good luck with the debate.

As you know, there is a long discussion of this stuff at Victor Reppert's blog here. There, I said: when you point out something clearly horrible, that God had the power to stop, the theists suddenly become quite tentative and hesitant in their ability to trust their own moral faculties.
I think this is a good debating point. Simple, easy to make, and scores rhetorical points (we are talking about a debate here, not a scholarly discussion!).

The usual to try to escape Euthyphro, as everyone has said, is to say that we have independent reasons to think that God is good, reasons to believe this goodness is part of his intrinsic nature. Hence, he doesn't will X because X is good, but because He is good and could never will something that wasn't good. I have a friend who is just a good guy. Without having to think, or 'recognize' some external moral truth: he spontaneously does what is right. It's just in his nature. We could all be better people if we lived like he does. God is like this guy to the Nth power. Remember I don't have to answer how I know what he did was right: given my rudamentary moral knowledge, I can see that he does what is right. Since God always, without exception, does what is good, we should strive to make our will conform with what he does.

Frankly, I think this is a rhetorically good response to the Euthyprho dilemma. I'd like to see a response that will work well in a debate setting. I am not quite convinced by the Venn diagram stuff, either conceptually or as something that would go over well in a debate (where the best bumper stickers prevail). One thing is: if that friend who always does what is right starts raping babies, I'm not gonna start doing the same. I'll use my moral sense to realize I was wrong about him. Same goes with God. Hence, while we may have reason to think that god is good, if he suddenly changed to a baby raper, we wouldn't follow. This shows that God isn't sufficient for morality.

As for giving your own account of morality, I wouldn't spend TOO much time on it. It is a debate about the problem of evil, not about atheistic ethics. Even if you don't have a good account of morality, that doesn't mean that the problem of evil is solved, after all! Showing a problem with one view doesn't obligate you to solve the original problem the view was meant to solve! We could show that Aristotle's theory that moving objects tend to slow down, even if we had no alternative theory of motion to replace it with.

But things like the tender-nippled love shown by a dog to her young, about the grief an elephant expresses when her baby dies, suggests that our moral sentiments, love and the like, are extensions and codifications of those biological traits that we find in many species. We have an ability to contribute to biological flourishing (and even flowers can flourish when we take care of them: why not take care of people so they can flourish?).

An analogy that I find useful is to color perception. Just as our brain paints the world with colorful tones, so it paints the world with a moral hue, and tries to paint the world a better place.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I would recommend avoiding ceeding to much ground in moving away from the logical problem. The problem of evil may not be mathematically demonstrative, but it seems to me to be as conclusive as any evidential case ever can be.

Steven Carr said...

Should God be held to the standard 'What would Jesus do?', when He is confronted by evil?

Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone. Let me run a part of my first rebuttal past you here for your analysis. I'm wondering about it, and I may not include it, but here it is:

The truth is that reason is against believing God has good reasons for creating and allowing evil. The theist may say God has a higher morality than we do such that God is not bound by the same ethical obligations as we are, because he has “higher purposes.” Whatever this higher morality and higher purposes are we don’t have a clue. The only ethic I know of that fits what the theist believes about God’s morality is blatant Utilitarianism. God’s ethical code would be that “the end justifies the means.” But this ethic is one that many theists reject as immoral, since most any act can potentially be justified if the end is good. Somone might even try to justify murdering his mother, if it produces more good than bad in the end. With this view, God can do anything he wants to his creatures for his own ends, and if so, God is the ultimate selfish entity.

Theists may respond that since God is God he’s the only entity who can legitimately be self-centered. However, if so, God’s morality is not just a higher morality, but a different morality to us. It is a different morality such that if we treated people like God does in this world we would be locked up in prison.

At best we would be little more than involuntary animals in a grotesque scientific experiment that God finds pleasure from observing how we act under certain controlled conditions. This might please him, but as animals in that experiment we want to know if God cares about us, even if we aren’t equals. And from our perspective a perfectly good God should really care about us, but from our perspective he doesn't. Here the whole notion of God’s goodness means nothing to us at all.

Bill said...


Doug Geivett has a audio lecture on the problem of evil here if you are interested. Although I am sure you have heard most of this before.

Steven Carr said...

Theists somtimes compare God to a master chess player, whose moves we cannot understand.

Should we be treated like pawns in a game?

Mattie said...

When we think of evil, and from what I've read of the comments, generally evil is death, death caused by disease, death caused by natural disaster, and the suffering til death.
I don't know if you've considered this, but death is not evil. It is a part of life. Disease is suffering to the human, but that which causes the disease is struggling to survive. A natural disaster is bad for humans, but may be very good for the earth's ecosystem.
When I consider what is truly evil, it encompasses those things over which humans have control.
When I was a Christian and was posed this question, I would remind people of these things, and remind also that God never promised a utopia on earth, humans have 'free will' and are responsible for their actions. I would then conclude that the evils of death, disease and disaster are natural and not evil so they are permitted, and the evils enacted by humans are permitted due to 'free will'.
Just a different perspective for you.

Joe Otten said...

I think the answer to the "God's nature" defence to Euthyphro is not in Venn diagrams and such, but the simple question: Does God choose his own nature?

If he chooses it, or chose it, then it is arbitrary. If not, it constrains him. We are right back to the dilemma.

Blue Devil Knight said...

John: that rebuttal is confusing. Few Christians would agree that God's morality is utilitarian, for instance. What makes you say this? I don't really understand your reasoning, or your argument. It seems diffuse. For a debate setting pithy, memorable, and easy to digest phrases are key.

openlyatheist said...

My 2 cents:

The Problem of Evil fails as an atheistic apologetic for several reasons I can see:

1. The Primacy of Consciousness: (to steal a play from Dawson Bethrick’s playbook), According to the theistic worldview, humans have no intrinsic existence. As a result, humans have no inherent value either. We are only figments of God’s imagination. Ergo, appeal to evil has no force, since we are all just imaginary beings anyway.

2. Total Depravity: According to the Christian worldview man is inherently sinful and worthy of damnation. Any Christian who believes this cannot see any inherent value in humanity and thus will not be moved by any example of evil done to humans.

3. Assignment of Divine Will: Apologists can assign God whatever motives they wish in mid-debate to retroactively justify any occurrence: God was teaching a lesson, some future good may come of suffering, etc.

4. Afterlife Justice: According to the Christian worldview, all humans will end up in Heaven or in Hell in harmony w/ God’s perfect judgment. Say some people die in a hurricane. Those that are meant to will go to Heaven, making their earthly suffering insignificant. Those that go to Hell are worthy of it, making their earthly suffering negligible by comparison. God makes no mistakes, the good are rewarded, the sinful are punished, so the evil humans experience is either unimportant or deserved.

For these reasons I have never seen appeals to evil have an effect on Christians. People only reject Christianity when they come around to a belief in intrinsic human value all on their own.

Jim the Theist said...

Have you ever read CS Lewis's Mere Christianity? He gives a very good analogy of good and evil. There can be no evil with out absolute goodness (God) to measure it against. "How do you know a line is crooked without having some knowledge of what a straight line is” We humans are born with an since or instinct of Good. Therefore, God as well as the evil derived from a corrupted good must exist.

Anonymous said...

Jim, then would C.S. Lewis say there can be no pain unless we know pleasure to measure it against? Pain...overwhelming pain...intense pain...the kind that turns our stomachs. That's what I'll be talking about. Why is there so much of it when there is a good omnipotent God?

Lewis' argument here is about evaluating pain, and he says we cannot say some pain is evil unless we know what is good. So the dilemma for the Christian is to reconcile the pain in the world with his very own notions (not mine) that all pain is good, regardless of what I think about good and evil. And I just don't see this happening.

Jim the Theist said...

We are not slaves of God. We have the free will to choose good or evil. God is a loving God and he created us in the hopes that we would love him too. If God were to force us to love it would not be real and would have no substance. Therefore, we are put in a world with unlimited choices that carry unlimited consequences. Because we are not capable of the pure love and perfection of God, we fall short of the mark. The pain and suffering in this world are the consequences of our short fall not of God. It is man that does evil and causes pain.