Answering the evil-god challenge




In 2010, atheist philosopher Stephen Law published a paper called ‘The evil-god challenge’, in which he offers the following challenge to theists who believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God who is good:

“The challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-good god should be considered significantly more reasonable than the hypothesis that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient and all-evil god. Theists typically dismiss the evil-god hypothesis out of hand because of the problem of good – there is surely too much good in the world for it to be the creation of such a being. But then why doesn’t the problem of evil provide equally good grounds for dismissing a belief in a good god?” (Law, ‘The evil-god challenge’ Religious Studies 46/3 (2010): p353)

Just as theists have replied to the problem of evil with ‘theodicies’, Law replies to the problem of good (that there is too much good in the world for an evil god to exist), with what he calls ‘reverse theodicies’. For example:

“An evil god could have created a universe populated with puppet beings that he ensured always behaved unpleasantly. But the behaviour of such puppet being lacks the dimension of moral responsibility that transforms such acts into actions of the most depraved and despicable kind. To maximise evil, an evil god will want us to perform cruel and selfish acts of our own volition.” (Law, p357)

Law then develops a ‘symmetry thesis’, in which he argues that the proposition that an evil god exists despite the amount of good in the world, is just as reasonable as the proposition that a good God exists despite the amount of evil in the world. In Law’s words:

“In terms of reasonableness, isn’t there a broad symmetry between the good-god hypothesis and the evil-god hypothesis? Take arguments supporting the two hypotheses. I pointed out earlier that many of the popular arguments in support of the good-god hypothesis turn out to provide much the same support (i.e. not very much) for the evil-god hypothesis. Moreover, when it comes to dealing with the evidence against the respective hypotheses provided by the enormous quantities of both good and evil that we find in the world, we can construct similar kinds of explanation.” (Law, p359)

According to Stephen Law, if we grant that his symmetry thesis is true, then theists should be equally quick to dismiss the existence of a good God because of the problem of evil, as they dismiss the existence of an evil-god because of the problem of good.

And yet, if we take Law’s reverse theodicies seriously, then we shouldn’t dismiss the existence of an evil-god at all. Perhaps there is an evil-god who created the universe and gave us the freedom to do evil, even if it means that we sometimes do good. If we take Law’s reverse theodicies seriously, then we should actually dismiss neither god hypothesis, not both.

Stephen Law’s evil-god challenge can be summarised as follows:
1. The existence of a good God is as reasonable as the existence of an evil-god (symmetry thesis)
2. The existence of an evil-god is not reasonable (premise)
3. Therefore, the existence of a good God is not reasonable (conclusion)

This is a logically valid argument: if the symmetry thesis and the premise are true, then the conclusion is inescapable. But it is not a logically sound argument because if Law’s reverse theodicies fail then his symmetry thesis is false, and if they succeed then his premise of the unreasonability of an evil-god is false. Law’s reverse theodicies either succeed (disproving his premise) or they fail (disproving his symmetry thesis). Either way, the two planks of his argument cannot both be true at the same time.

If Law’s symmetry thesis is true, and if his reverse theodicies are as strong as he contends, then his broader argument fails. The existence of an evil-god should be considered to be highly reasonable (by his reverse theodicies). But if that’s the case, then the existence of a good God should also be considered to be highly reasonable (by his symmetry thesis).

The reason why so few theists take Law’s argument seriously, is because Law assumes that theists dismiss the existence of an evil-god purely because of the amount of good in the world (Law, p357). However, every single Christian theist in the world (and throughout history), believes that God’s character is revealed, not by the amount of good in the world, but by the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The closest Law comes to engaging with the real reason why Christian philosophers maintain that the existence of a good God is more reasonable than the existence of an evil-god (i.e. the person and work of Christ), is in his response to miracles and religious experience:

“An evil and omnipotent being will have no difficulty duping human beings into believing that he is good. Taking on a ‘good’ guise, he might appear in one corner of the world, revealing himself in religious experiences and performing miracles in response to prayers, and perhaps also giving instructions regarding what his followers should believe. He might then do the same in another part of the globe, with the exception that the instructions he leaves regarding what should be believed contradict what he has said elsewhere. Our evil being could then stand back and watch the inevitable conflict develop between communities to whom he has now misleadingly revealed himself.” (Law, p362-363)

Interestingly, this accusation was first put to Jesus by his contemporaries (Matthew 12:24-28). And yet, it is just as demonstrably false today as it was then. For this argument to have any force against Christians, Law would have to demonstrate that Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44-48), is part of an evil god’s ultimate plan for conflict between Christians and other theists. On examining Jesus’ teaching, this argument is patently absurd.

Perhaps Law would reply that Christians have been involved in conflict over differing beliefs in God, for example, in the Crusades. Setting aside the fact that the Crusades were largely over holy land rather than theology, this argument seeks to judge a philosophy by its abusers rather than by its teaching. Christians who fail to love and pray for those who persecute them, do so despite Christ’s teaching, not because of it.

Law’s evil-god challenge also fails to refute the Christian free-will defence against the problem of evil. Law begins by saying that “the simple free-will solution fails to explain so-called natural evils” (Law, p355), but then he later concedes that “Augustine’s explanation of natural and moral evils [are] both rooted in the sin of Adam and Eve” (Law, p368). That is, humanity’s free choice to reject God explains both moral evil and natural evil (Genesis 3:17-19).

Law dismisses Augustine’s free-will defence because of “the mythic status of Adam, Eve, and the Fall” (Law, p368). But science has confirmed the existence of Mitochondrial Eve – the most recent common female ancestor of all of humanity. If Mitochondrial Eve had just one partner and father of her children, then they would be the perfect candidates for the Adam and Eve described Genesis 2 and 3.

Law also misunderstands the Christian view of God’s providence. Law insists that, in order to allow evil, God “must actually inflict pain and death so that we have the free choice to help alleviate or prevent it” (Law, p369). But for the past 2000 years, Christians have unanimously maintained that God is not the author of evil. God doesn’t have to inflict evil and suffering in order to be sovereign over it.

Law’s evil-god challenge has largely gone ignored by Christian theists because it’s simply not that challenging. It is little more than a straw-man argument that misunderstands the Christian basis for the goodness of God, the scope of the free-will defence, and the providence of God over evil. At its heart, Law’s challenge is to explain why the hypothesis that God is good, is more reasonable than the hypothesis that God is evil. For Christians, that explanation is found in Jesus Christ, not in a water-tight argument but a water-tight person.

Return to main page