The Problem of Not Defining Evil: Craig Vs. Sinnott-Armstrong

This post comes from a very short paper I wrote for a philosophy of religion class at TEDS. I figured since I haven’t had time to blog since starting my Theological Studies degree, I might as well share my papers with you. We were limited to five pages double spaced so I didn’t get to develope all of the points that I wanted to. Instead I focused my short analysis on what I thought was most important: definitions. Two thirds of the paper was to be explication of the debaters’ arguments and in the last third I was able to provide anaylsis of my own. I hope you enjoy.

If God exists, how can there be evil in the world? This age-old dilemma, known as “the problem of evil”, has led many to deny the existence of God. Others, in the face of evil, have held fast to their belief and opted to develop an array of arguments in God’s defense. Though answers to the problem are manifold, this perennial debate over evil has no end in sight. In this paper, I’ll examine one particular exchange between Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, and Atheist philosopher, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. I’ll briefly sketch their arguments and counterarguments, then provide some analysis of my own. I argue that in their treatment of the problem of evil, both contributors’ positions are undermined by their inadequate definitions.

The exchange takes place in the book, God? A Debate Between a Christian and an Atheist[1], which is the culmination of two live debates between Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong. In the book, Sinnott-Armstrong raises several arguments against the existence of God, including the infamous problem of evil. His stated goal is to argue both negatively against the Judeo-Christian God[2]– who is an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal, effective, personal God[3]– and to argue positively for atheism.[4] He summarizes his argument as follows: “There is lots of evil in the world. There would not be so much evil if there were an all-good and all-powerful God. Therefore, there is no such God.”[5] He then presents the problem in a syllogistic form:

  1. “If there were an all-powerful and all-good God, then there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for an adequately compensating good.
  2. There is lots of evil in the world.
  3. Much of that evil is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good.
  4. Therefore, there is no God who is all-powerful and all-good.”[6]

By his own account, his argument depends on his notion of evil for its force. In defining evil, Sinnott-Armstrong opts for a broad definition so as to include both moral evil and natural evil. This choice allows him to criticize a wide swath of theistic answers to the problem of evil; he utilizes both natural disasters as well as immoral human actions in his rebuttals. He defines evil as “anything that is harmful or bad, even if no moral agent causes it or could prevent it.”[7] While he acknowledges that various instantiations of evil are open to debate, he claims that only three generally uncontested examples are needed for his argument: “intense pain (or suffering), serious disabilities (mental and physical), and death.”[8] He then proceeds to criticize eleven major theistic responses to the problem of evil. Each criticism seeks to show that despite the particular defense, God would still be unfair to allow evil and suffering under all eleven paradigms. He relies heavily on analogies from human relationships in order to make his point about God’s alleged unfairness.

In chapter five, Craig responds to Sinnott-Armstrong’s formulation by seeking to strengthen it and more properly (in his estimation) categorize the argument as the “problem of suffering or pain” rather than the problem of evil.[9] He also makes the distinction between the intellectual and the emotional problem of evil. This caveat allows Craig to focus on the intellectual problem as a philosopher while entrusting the emotional problem to those in other fields. Craig restates his interlocutor’s argument as follows:

  1. “If God exists, gratuitous suffering does not exist.
  2. Gratuitous suffering exists.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.”[10]

He then attacks Sinnott-Armstrong’s sloppy use of analogies and spends a significant portion of the chapter seeking to refute premise two: “Gratuitous suffering exists.” Craig argues that while there is apparently gratuitous or unjustified suffering in the world, there’s no way for any human to demonstrate that there actually is any gratuitous suffering in the universe. Craig argues:

  1. We’d have to be omniscient in order to know that there is no possible good reason for the suffering that exists.[11]
  2. The Christian teachings on knowing God, man’s rebellion against God, and God’s eternal plan all lead Christians to expect to see apparently gratuitous suffering, even though it’s not actually gratuitous.[12]
  3. In order to know if there is gratuitous evil in the world, we’d have to know whether or not God exists, so to claim that gratuitous evil exists, one begs the question.

In responding to Craig’s reformulation of his argument, Sinnott-Armstrong reaffirms his use of the word “evil” rather than “suffering”, claiming that Craig’s formulation simplifies his argument, which narrows its scope[13]. He then answers Craig’s omniscience objection by affirming that while he can’t know that there truly is gratuitous evil or suffering, he has no reason to think there are justifiable reasons for it. Therefore, apparently gratuitous evil or suffering should be viewed as truly gratuitous until proven innocent.[14]

In reflecting on Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong’s interchange I find myself underwhelmed by their treatment of evil. Both contributors to this book are philosophers. As such, I’d except more precision concerning prolegomena. As Aristotle says, “For those who wish to make good progress must start well; for subsequent progress depends on the resolution of the first puzzles…”[15] “First puzzles” such as definitions and standards are left largely untouched by both contributors- at least concerning evil. On their mutually assumed common ground, both miss the most fundamental element of the whole argument: what do we mean by evil?

Sinnott-Armstrong’s stipulative definition of evil is vague: “anything that is harmful or bad, even if no moral agent causes it or could prevent it.”[16] By what standard are we to judge “badness”? Without a definition or a standard, how are we to adjudicate between good and evil? In anticipation of such questions, he claims that it’s not necessary for him to give an accounting; he doesn’t need to define evil, it’s just self-evident.[17] I wonder if he would allow the same standard to be applied in arguing for God? “It’s not necessary for Christians to define God or argue for His existence, He’s self-evidently known- his existence is a matter of commonsense!” Of course, he wouldn’t.

The problem with this commonsense ploy is that anyone can claim their position as commonsense. However, it’s apparent that Sinnott-Armstrong recognizes his need to define evil since he gives us a borrowed definition right after his assertion to the contrary: “[evil is] anything that all rational people avoid for themselves unless they have an adequate reason to want it”.[18] But this is also vague since by it “justice” can be an evil since plenty of rational people avoid justice when it’s applied to themselves, but pursue justice against others. It seems that Sinnott-Armstrong has his own problem of evil- the problem of defining it.

Sinnott-Armstrong admits that “[his] argument depends on the notion of evil, which needs to be explained”.[19] By propping up his argument on vague definitions and inadequate explanations, his problem of evil can be rebutted by asking: what do you mean by evil? And though this question serves to undermine his atheistic argument, the Bible gives Christian theism a framework by which we can define evil and make sense of its appearance. Since God is the summum bonum, evil is that which is contrary to God. Moral evil, therefore, is volitional rebellion against God (sin). Natural evil, like hurricanes, sickness, floods, etc. are the punishment for moral evil (God cursed the ground because of man’s sin[20]). I would have liked to see Craig make this point more explicitly.

Though Craig and Sinnott-Armstrong demonstrate advanced philosophical acumen throughout their debate, when it comes to the problem of evil, they both make a crucial error at the fundamental point of definition. Sinnott-Armstrong’s weak definition serves to erode the whole thrust of his argument and leaves him open to a Euthyphro Dilemma of his own. Since Craig didn’t define evil himself or press his interlocutor to provide a more adequate definition, Sinnott-Armstrong is allowed to take his argument further than is warranted. Although their exchange concerning evil could have been improved, their debate as a whole was stimulating; it’s worth a second read and some extended contemplation.

[1] William Lane Craig & Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, God? A Debate Between A Christian and An Atheist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004)

[2] Ibid., x

[3] Ibid., 83

[4] Ibid., 81

[5] Ibid., 84

[6] Ibid., 85

[7] Ibid., 86

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 112

[10] Ibid., 114

[11] Ibid., 116-119

[12] Ibid., 119-124

[13] Ibid., 138

[14] Ibid., 141

[15] Aristotle, The Metaphysics (London: Penguin Books, 2004)

[16] William Lane Craig & Walter Sinnot-Anderson, God? A Debate Between A Christian and An Atheist (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 86

[17] “But it does strike me and almost everyone else as obvious that pain, disabilities, and death are evils. What makes these things evil? That is a tough question that I do not need to answer here. It is enough for my argument that these things are evil, even if it is not clear what makes them evil or what it means to call them evil”. Ibid., 86

[18] a definition he borrows from Bernard Gert, Ibid.,

[19] Ibid.,

[20] Genesis 3:17-19


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