The Evidential Problem of Evil


In today’s blog post, we are going to be introducing the evidential problem of evil. What it is, some of its formulations and nuances, and also some distinctions that this argument helps us appreciate in discussions surrounding the problem of evil. This blog post is a summary of a recent video on our YouTube channel, so for the full breakdown, go check our YouTube channel out!

What is the Evidential Problem of Evil:

The evidential problem of evil is an a posteriori argument for the existence of God. It attempts to use the experience of evil in the world to discount the probability that God can exist. A good summary of this argument can be found in the work of William Rowe: 

“Suppose in some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering. So far as we can see, the fawn’s intense suffering is pointless. For there does not appear to be any greater good such that the prevention of the fawn’s suffering would require either the loss of that good or the occurrence of an evil equally bad or worse.”

Rowe, William L. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” in The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) 129-30.

Instead of arguing for an intrinsic property, this argument illustrates the intuitive improbability of the co-existence of God and evil. As a result, when you’re talking to people about the evidential problem of evil, the response you’re making is less so about redefining their conception of God or evil, but rather to ease the prima facie tension between these two ideas. 

Some further details:

The importance of using “intuitive probability” here is the fact that atheists are not making an argument from mathematical probability. When atheists claim that it is unlikely for God to exist, they are not making the further argument that there is a specific numerical probability for the existence of God. Rather, the improbability is merely intuitive. This is somewhat problematic as intuitive probability is very much culturally determined. For example, someone’s beliefs of how likely it is for their friends to bow to their elders would be intuitively different if their friend is a Japanese person, where bowing is a very strong part of the culture to an American where people normally shake their hands on their first meeting. As a result, you can see that clear differences between intuitive probability and mathematical probability would have a great impact on the actual strength of the argument.

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Important distinctions: 

Now that we’ve discussed some of the details between the types of probability, I’d like to talk about three categorical distinctions which exist in discussions surrounding the problem of evil, the gratuitous versus the non gratuitous distinction, the moral versus natural evil distinction, and the categorical approach to morality and the consequentialist approach to morality.

The distinction of gratuitous evil is vital in understanding the type of theodicy one can apply. Gratuitous evil is the idea that there exists evil without an explanation. Non-gratuitous evil is evil with a reason. The existence of both these evils would have a different effect on our understanding of God and theodicy. One can clearly see how the existence of these different types of evil can influence our understanding of God.

The difference between moral and natural evil is quite a clear one. For example, the Holocaust that was caused by the evil actions of people like Adolf Hitler and the SS. However, when you’re talking about natural evil, you’re talking about earthquakes and tsunamis. Similar to the gratuitous v. non-gratuitous distinction, moral and natural evil demands a different approach when one is discussing the problem of evil.

Finally, there’s discussion between the consequentialist theories and the deontological and categorical distinctions of moral ethical theories. When you are thinking about consequentialist morality, any future good, if strong enough, would be able to justify any evil. For example, the soul-making theodicy which posits eternity in heaven, would ultimately overwhelm any evil existing on this world. However, if one is committed to categorical ethics, it follows that Christians must find an intrinsic justification for evil, as no future good can categorically “pay for” the evil.


I hope you have found this blog post informative, if you want to go check out the full video and breakdown for the evidential problem of evil, make sure you go check out the YouTube video linked above! Furthermore, if you would like to stay up to date with everything going on with my projects, make sure to sign up to my newsletter to stay up to date with the latest research in philosophy and theology.

Coming up on my YouTube channel is an interview with Dr Simon Horobin on CS Lewis which would be very exciting to watch!

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