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Reply to Guthrie


Although the main focus of my Internet essay “The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief”[1] was the Argument from Nonbelief, and although, as I indicated there, the Argument from Evil (AE) was presented only as background material and is regarded by me as the weaker of the two arguments, nevertheless, Shandon L. Guthrie has written an Internet essay[2] that focuses on my brief treatment of AE in that essay. For a more extensive treatment of AE, one should consult my book on the topic.[3]

Guthrie’s essay contains several errors of exposition. He says that my version of AE attacks God conceived of as omnibenevolent. That is not so. Rather, it attacks God conceived of as all-loving. There is a difference. Benevolence is a concept of ethics, whereas love isn’t.[4] In my version of the argument, even the term “evil” is taken in a nonethical sense (as suffering and premature death). I thereby avoid the various problems of ethics and metaethics that plague other versions of AE.[5]

Another error of exposition is that, according to Guthrie, I take the amelioration of human suffering to be God’s highest desire. That is not so at all. Rather, I take God (were he to exist) to want to reduce human suffering and not to have any other desire which conflicts with that one and overrides it. So far as God’s overall priorities are concerned, his desire to reduce human suffering may not be his highest, and may very well be quite low on the list. Nothing in my version of AE suggests otherwise. (Note that even if the desire were quite low on God’s list, it nevertheless would still exist and there would be no reason for God to refrain from fulfilling it.)

Still another error of exposition occurs when Guthrie quotes an argument from my essay to the effect that God cannot have conflicting desires. It is an argument which I reject. I state it and then proceed to attack it in the very next paragraph of the essay. Yet, inexplicably, Guthrie actually takes it to be an argument of mine, totally disregarding my own attack on it, and then proceeds to attack it himself. Part of his essay is thereby a sheer waste of space.

In addition to the errors of exposition, Guthrie makes other mistakes. In my essay, I claim that if God were to exist, he would be able to reduce human suffering, for example, by reducing the number (or severity) of natural evils, such as catastrophes (like earthquakes) and diseases (like cancer), which afflict humanity, or perhaps by making humans hardier and better able to withstand the afflictions. Guthrie actually says that is not so, that God could exist and still not be able to do any of that, even to the slightest extent. The reason Guthrie gives is that to reduce human suffering might interfere with human free will, which it would not be feasible for God to do. The obvious (and standard) reply here is that free will is irrelevant to natural evil. To eliminate or reduce cancer, for example, would not in any way interfere with human free will.[6] Incredibly, Guthrie makes no defense against this objection, and seems oblivious to it. Nowhere does he try to show the relevance of free will to the reduction of natural evils.

Intertwined with Guthrie’s appeal to the Free-Will Defense, there is an appeal to another objection to AE’s premise that God (were he to exist) would be able to reduce the suffering in the world. It is one that makes use of the statement “It is not feasible for God to create a world with as much good in it without as much evil as the actual world has.” If “feasible” is taken in the sense of “possible,” then the statement is clearly false, for, as the Bible says, with God all things are possible (Matt. 19:26). If “feasible” is taken in the sense of “suitable,” then it brings in issues related to God’s purposes, which have to do with other premises of AE. It would then not be relevant to the premise that Guthrie is here attacking, namely the one which simply says that God is able to reduce the suffering in the world.

Also contained in Guthrie’s essay is the odd sentence “Maybe God can bring about situation L [i.e., reduce human suffering and premature death] to Drange’s satisfaction, but the sacrifice is that the world only contains two people in it.” I am unable to comprehend what Guthrie might mean here. First, the reference to my “satisfaction” is mystifying, as though suffering-reduction were some sort of subjective enterprise. And, second, the suggestion regarding “two people” makes no sense at all. Our world contains six billion people. To reduce suffering in it, just take a handful out of the six billion and cure them of their ailments. Why should that bring the population down from six billion to just two? No intelligible explanation is provided in the essay.

Guthrie also tries to attack the premise in AE which says that God (were he to exist) has no desire that conflicts with and overrides his desire to reduce human suffering. In one place, Guthrie suggests what such a conflicting, overriding desire might be. He claims that it might be the desire to bring all human beings to salvation. But nowhere does he explain how that desire might conflict with the divine desire to reduce human suffering. That is, nowhere does Guthrie explain why God could not simply fulfill both desires, i.e., reduce human earthly suffering and also bring all humans to salvation. On the face of it, that would seem easy for God to do. So that objection goes nowhere.[7]

In another place, Guthrie suggests that God may have the conflicting, overriding desire in question, but it is one which is (as he calls it) “inscrutable.” There, he seems to be appealing to what I call the “Unknown-Purpose Defense” (UPD), but it is really unclear whether he intends to appeal to that. He does not at all develop the idea that God’s purpose is inscrutable. And, furthermore, for Guthrie to appeal to UPD would be inconsistent with his previous suggestion that God’s purpose is indeed known and that it is to bring all human beings to salvation. Because of this unclarity regarding Guthrie’s view on the matter, I shall not here undertake a refutation of UPD as applied to AE.[8]

In sum, in addition to writing a very unclear essay, Guthrie has erred in many ways. He erred in only attacking AE as it is formulated in my essay “The Arguments from Evil and Nonbelief,” as AE is given a much fuller treatment elsewhere. He erred in misstating my views in many ways (and continuing such misstatements even in his concluding paragraph). He erred in trying to argue that God (were he to exist) is unable to reduce human suffering. And, finally, he erred in his attempt to formulate a divine desire that conflicts with God’s desire to reduce human suffering, for the desire he came up with seems, on the face of it, not to involve such a conflict, and Guthrie never supplies any reason to think otherwise. It is hoped that future attacks on AE will be constructed with fewer defects.


[1] /library/modern/theodore_drange/aeanb.html

[2] “Concerning Theodore Drange’s Argument from Evil for the Non-existence of God” at: https://web.archive.org/web/20020825101552/http://examinedlifejournal.com/archives/vol3ed10/drange.shtml .

[3] Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998).

[4] What I mean by this is that ethical terms (such as “good,” “best,” “right,” or “morally obligatory”) are needed in order to define “benevolence,” but they are not needed in order to define “love.” Love can be conceived of as simply a certain kind of feeling or relationship.

[5] In keeping with tradition, I entitled it “the Argument from Evil,” though a more accurate name would have been “the Argument from Suffering,” where an ethical dimension to the problem is not even implied.

[6] In chapter 4 of my book, I also raise other objections to the Free-will Defense, but we need not go into those here.

[7] Interestingly, the particular divine desire to which Guthrie here appeals (to bring all humans to salvation) plays a prominent role in the Argument from Nonbelief, as shown in my essay. On the assumption that belief in the gospel message is necessary for salvation, the existence of large numbers of nonbelievers in that message would constitute good evidence that there does not exist an omnipotent deity who has the salvation of all humans as his highest desire.

In his (obscure) note 3, Guthrie suggests that God may leave some people in their state of unbelief because he knows that if he were to reveal his existence to them, they would respond inappropriately. In my book, I call that “the Inappropriate-response Defense” and refute it on pp. 140-142. Readers with an interest in the issue should see how it is dealt with there.

[8] To see how UPD is refuted when applied to the Argument from Nonbelief, one could refer to the essay itself, which is based on chapter 11 of my book. To see how UPD might be refuted when applied to AE, see chapter 10 of my book.

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