God, Gratuitous Evil, and The Murderous Goose

If God is all knowing, if He is all powerful, and if He is good, then He’d have to stop any and all instances of evil, wouldn’t He? He would know about all evil, He would be able to stop all evil, and He would want to stop all evil, therefore since God exists there should be no evil, right? Well, not exactly. Perhaps there is a morally sufficient reason for God to allow certain evils in order for His good purposes to be achieved. Perhaps God had to allow certain evils in order to achieve said evils’ antecedent goods or subsequent goods. Or perhaps God is using such evils to bring about a greater good. Such have been just a few of the manifold responses to the so-called “problem of evil”.

But what about evil that does not accord with God’s plan, evil that does not result from antecedent or subsequent goods, evil that is not involved in some “greater good” defense? What about purposeless evil, or as philosophers call it, “gratuitous evil”? If God always has a morally sufficient reason for the evil that exists in the world, then even one instance of gratuitous evil, evil that does not have a morally sufficient reason, would puncture a hole in the theist’s belief in God. In this paper I will examine the problem of gratuitous evil in its deductive and inductive forms as they arise for my theological system, then, with the aid of various philosophers and theologians, I will argue that these arguments both fail for various reasons and leave my theological system intact.

The problem of gratuitous evil demonstrates what philosopher-theologian, John Feinberg, notes in his book The Many Faces of Evil[1], namely that there is no single “problem of evil”. The problem of evil actually turns out to be a family of problems and can more accurately be described as the problems of evil. Problems of evil arise in various forms. There are logical and deductive problems of evil which seek to derive an internal contradiction in the theist’s worldview. There are evidential and inductive problems of evil which seek to demonstrate that the preponderance of evidence leads to the conclusion that there probably is no God. There are problems of moral evil, problems of natural evil, religious problems of evil, the problem of hell, problems of the amount of evil, and the problem of gratuitous evil. Each of these problems manifest themselves differently in different theological systems. So, one’s theology will shape one’s response to the specific problem of evil which they uniquely face. Thus, as apparent gratuitous evil arises to challenge my theological system, it is from my theological system that I seek to provide an adequate defense.

Before proceeding any further, It is important for us to flesh out the meaning of “gratuitous evil” a bit further. Philosopher Jane Mary Trau defines gratuitous evil as “any suffering the purpose of which seems to exceed necessity, and any suffering which seems to serve no purpose at all.”[2] Ronald Nash further describes it as “truly senseless, mindless, irrational, and meaningless evil”.[3] But another important word for describing gratuitous evil is “unjustified”. If God does not have a sufficient reason for permitting an evil then that evil is unjustified and thus it has no purpose, it is gratuitous. Feinberg explains that there are at least three different senses in which an evil could be unjustified entailing its gratuitousness:

“1) an evil is gratuitous if it fails to possess some intrinsic quality or conform to some absolute standard of goodness- presumably, possessing that quality or conforming to that standard would justify the evil

2) an evil is gratuitous if it serves no further end once it occurs, i.e., it is neither casually nor logically connected to the production of a subsequent good- presumably, that good would justify the evil

3) an evil is gratuitous if it or its possibility has no antecedent good to which it is tied as an effect or by-product- presumably, the good that would cause it or its concomitant would justify it”[4]

Feinberg goes on to say that “philosophers who discuss the problem of gratuitous evil do so in terms of 2) and 3), not in terms of 1).”[5] This makes sense given that if an evil fulfilled the first criterion then it would not in fact be an evil, but a good, whereas the whole debate is about whether an actual evil can be justified in some way by producing a good or by making a good possible which outweighs or justifies the evil. Feinberg suggests that we should use both 2) and 3) in our definitions of gratuitous evil stating that, “In order for [an evil] to qualify as genuinely pointless, however, it must be pointless in both senses, i.e., it is tied neither to any antecedent nor to any subsequent good.”[6] Thus, for an evil to be gratuitous it has to have served no prior purpose, nor future purpose; God has to have no sufficient reason for permitting it; a gratuitous evil is pointless, purposeless, meaningless evil.

With this thicker understanding of gratuitous evil in mind, we move now to consider the problem of gratuitous evil for my theology starting with an apparent instance of gratuitous evil: the Murderous Goose.

In the springtime geese get ornery. Anyone who has accidentally stumbled upon one of their nests has found this out the hard way. But they become exceptionally ornery even before their eggs are laid or their nests are made. Many of us have been met with eardrum shattering honks, demonic hissing, and the flapping force of a thousand winds just for being in the general proximity of a springtime goose. While we may hate this behavior, we certainly understand it. The geese want to ward off potential threats to their mates and to their future offspring. It makes sense. But recently, while scrolling through Instagram, I found a video of a goose that went beyond ornery- it was downright barbaric.

In this video, a Caspian Tern (think “small, diving seagull”) dove into a pond in an attempt to grab a fish. Suddenly, out of the reeds came an angry goose with murder in its eyes- honking, flapping, and biting. The tern tried to escape but had not yet recovered from its dive. The goose blocked the tern’s escape by smothering it with its wings and at the same time it used its liquorish black webbed feet to push and hold the tern under water. The tern broke free and almost had enough steam to free itself from the viscosity of the pond, but in a flash the goose was back on it. After a short struggle, the goose relinquished, turned and began its swim back to the reeds. As the bubbles fizzled away you could see the tern’s glowing white body shine through the murky brown water; wings sprawled, head down, beak submerged, lifelessly floating- the goose had murdered it.

Watching this video stirred up an existential crisis deep inside me. Yeah, sure, it was just a stupid goose and an oblivious tern- who cares? Why should this cause a stir? Well, the reason this video was so unsettling for me was the fact that it did not need to happen. The goose did not feed on the tern- geese are not carnivores, it was not a predator/pray situation. The tern was not mating competition- they are two different species. Nor was it a competition for nest space in the reeds- they nest in differ areas. The tern does not even eat the same food as the goose, so there was no potential competition for resources either. This goose did not need to kill the tern. It could have simply given the tern a good scare and chased it off. Once the tern escaped from the goose the first time, the goose could have let it go. Yet the goose drown the tern, apparently for just being in its space. Given the purposeless nature of this event, the problem of gratuitous evil[7] arose for me as my inner skeptic accused my theological system of internal inconsistency.

At this point it is necessary to describe my theological system so as to better identify how the problem of gratuitous evil arose for me. As a Christian theist, I believe in the three “omnis”: God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent (O from now on). Thus given O, as we’ve seen above, God could stop any evil which does not fit in His plan for a greater good, or which is not entailed by a subsequent or antecedent good. Also given O, denying one of the three omnis is not an option for me to solve my problem of evil.

As a Calvinist, I believe that God exercises meticulous providence (MP) over all His creation. Philosopher William Hasker describes MP as “a providence in which all events are carefully controlled and manipulated in such a way that no evils are permitted to occur except as they are necessary for the production of a greater good.”[8] Ronald Nash further explains that, “For those who hold to the doctrine of meticulous providence, there has to be a good reason for every evil, regardless of its severity; therefore, no evil is really meaningless. This doctrine, then, is the belief that God would never allow any instance of meaningless, pointless, purposeless, gratuitous evil.”[9] As Hasker and Nash note well, there can be no purposeless evil for a theological system that affirms MP, such as mine. Also, given my Calvinistic theology, I hold to a compatibilist view of free will, i.e. that human free agency is compatible with God’s divine determinism. Therefore, the “freewill defense”, i.e. appealing to man’s freewill, conceived in a libertarian rather than a compatibilist sense, is not open to me for staving off the attack of gratuitous evil- not that it would be much help even if I were able to use it in our goose problem unless one were to attribute moral agency to the goose, which seems fairly ridiculous on its face.

As a modified rationalist, I neither hold to a rationalist metaphysic which states that God must create and must create the best of all possible worlds, nor do I hold to a nominalist metaphysic where God can created literally whatever He wants, including square-circles and self-contradictions. Rather, I believe that God is consistent to His own nature and cannot act contrary to it. God is a se, and therefore did not need to create anything at all, but freely chose to do so. God was not forced to create the best of all possible worlds, but rather, based on His own goodness and desires, He created a good world.

Thus, given my belief that God did not have to create anything, my belief in O which entails that God could stop any evil that does not fit His plan, and my belief in MP which states that God would prevent any gratuitous evil, we see an apparent internal inconsistency arise for my theological system from the apparent gratuitous evil of a goose killing a tern for no reason.[10] If God only allows those evils which are necessary for antecedent, subsequent, or greater goods, and if this instance of natural evil has no purpose, then the God of my theology does not exist. In its deductive form, the argument can be stated as such:

  1. If God exists, then all evil has a justifying reason.
  2. But it is not the case that all evil has a justifying reason (in this case, the death of the tern at the beak and feet of the goose)
  3. Therefore, God does not exist.[11]

In answering this deductive problem of gratuitous evil, we return once again to Jane Mary Trau, who takes issue with premise 2. Trau says, “both the atheist [in our case my inner skeptic] and the theist make assumptions on this issue: the former assuming that since there is no apparent purpose there is in fact no purpose; and the latter assuming that there is no apparent purpose yet there is some non-apparent purpose.”[12] Her point is that in order to say there truly is no purpose to an instance of apparent gratuitous evil, the atheist would have to assume that there is no unseen purpose- no “non-apparent” purpose which would justify the evil and thus save it from falling into the gratuitous category; a theist on the other hand would assume that there is a non-apparent purpose. But as Feinberg notes, “To say there is no purpose is to reject one possible purpose, namely God’s.”[13] So upon further reflection, to claim that there truly is an instance of gratuitous evil is to beg the question against God, for if the God of my theology exists then He would have a morally sufficient reason for permitting the evil that obtains, and thus there would be no gratuitous evil. To argue that there is in fact gratuitous evil is to assume what the argument is trying to prove, i.e., that there is no God. In setting out to prove that there is no God, the atheist (my internal skeptic) has assumed that God does not exist in order to make premise 2 forceful. If there were no God then we could say that there truly is gratuitous evil, but my theological system affirms belief in God, O, and MP, so I have a defeater for gratuitous evil, namely that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting the evil that obtains, and thus it is not gratuitous. My theological system remains internally consistent.

The deductive argument, in claiming to be sure that there is gratuitous evil ends up begging the question and failing. But what if, instead of claiming certainty concerning the gratuitous nature of an evil, we were to say it “appears” to be gratuitous? Does this more modest approach end up with more force behind it? Well, let’s find out as we shift now from the deductive problem to the inductive problem of gratuitous evil.

Rather than claiming certainty concerning premise 2, the atheist now says it appears that there is no purpose to an instance of evil, thus it appears gratuitous, and from this apparent gratuitous evil, it follows that there probably is no God. The proponent of the inductive argument says that while we may not be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is genuine gratuitous evil, it is reasonable given the evidence, to conclude that an instance is gratuitous. Thus it is reasonable to believe that there is no God.

  1. If God exists, then all evil has a justifying reason.
  2. But it appears that not that all evil has a justifying reason (in this case the death of the tern at the beak and feet of the goose)
  3. Therefore, God probably does not exist.

The inductive argument is indeed more powerful than the deductive form (in that it can get off the ground without begging the question) but it is not impervious to criticism. In defending against the inductive argument we take issue with premise 5. Following Philosopher William P. Alston, we note that due to our cognitive limitations, we are not in a position to decide whether an instance of evil is gratuitous or not, and seeming to be gratuitous is not the same as actually being gratuitous. If we are unable to move from seemingly gratuitous to gratuitous simpliciter, then the argument has no force against the theist. Alston lists six cognitive limits that undercut our attempts to demonstrate an actual gratuitous evil and rebuff our judgments on seemingly gratuitous evil.

  1. Lack of data.
  2. Complexity greater than we can handle.
  3. Difficulty of determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary.
  4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities.
  5. Ignorance of the full range of values.
  6. Limits to our capacity to make well considered value judgments.[14]

Alston’s cognitive limits can be summarized by acknowledging that we as finite humans are not omniscient. Due to these cognitive limitations, we have a reason to withhold judgment concerning the move from seemingly gratuitous evil to actual gratuitous evil.

In order to know that an instance of evil is truly meaningless and purposeless, we would have to be omniscient ourselves. We would have to know that there is no greater good that God is bringing or can bring about through the death of the tern via the aggressive goose or that there was no antecedent or subsequent good that made the death of the tern necessary. But how could we know that unless we knew every possible connection-past, present, and future? Perhaps that tern was carrying a new form of bird flu that would have brought about thousands of human and animal deaths had it not been drown by the goose. Perhaps God used the video of the goose killing the tern to bring awareness of the overcrowding of waterfowl habitats due to commercial and residential development. Perhaps God used that video to make thousands of people consider the problems of natural evil and contemplate His existence in order to draw them into a deeper relationship with Himself. While the reader might find these scenarios improbable, we are not in a position to rule them out, seeing as we are not omniscient. There are dozens of scenarios we could think up as possible justifying reasons for the tern’s death, but the point is that our cognitive limitations preclude us from judging it as actually gratuitous and merely seeming to be gratuitous is not enough to rebut a greater good defense.

A final consideration worth mentioning when analyzing the inductive problem of gratuitous evil as it arises for my theology is that of prior probability. I did not happen upon this problem in a vacuum, rather I came to consider it with background beliefs, as mentioned above. When weighing the evidence against theism from the inductive argument, I have to take into account my reasons for believing theism in the first place. These background beliefs inform and shape my judgment on how probable I think an inductive premise is. My theology informs my worldview and out of my worldview I make probability judgements. As a transcendental presuppositionalist, I believe that the intelligibility of the universe, i.e., that we humans can reason, make moral judgements, do science, use language to speak about reality etc., ultimately presupposes the Ontological Trinity, i.e. God. Thus even in considering the argument that God probably does not exist from the appearance of seemingly gratuitous evil, I am using my reason, which I believe presupposes the existence of God. So, given the transcendental nature of my Christian theistic worldview, which informs my prior probability judgements, coupled with O, MP, and Alston’s six cognitive limits, the inductive argument from gratuitous evil fails to persuade me that God probably does not exist.

Although I am still left wondering why exactly God allowed the goose to brutally drown the tern, ultimately I am unable to call it an instance of gratuitous evil. Given my finite perspective, I simply do not know enough to make that judgement. Thus, given my theological background beliefs, I believe that God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing that evil to take place even though I do not know what that reason is. As I continue to reflect on this evil- which admittedly is trivial compared to the far worse atrocities committed everyday by humans against humans- I am reminded that while this world is in bondage to corruption, God has a plan; God is in control even in the midst of evil. I find comfort in knowing that there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, good Creator God who has promised to make all things right. I am grateful that He has revealed Himself in such a way that Christians who base their worldview on His Word can remain steadfast in the face of apparently gratuitous evil.

[1] John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil Revised and Expanded Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004)

[2] Cited in Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) 209.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil Revised and Expanded Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004) 348.

[5] Ibid., 350.

[6] Ibid., 351.

[7] More specifically, this would be a problem of gratuitous natural evil rather than moral evil, unless the one was to argue that Geese are moral agents. However, for the purposes of this paper, the distinction need not be addressed, as it would only bog down our conversation. Thus, I stick with gratuitous evil in general rather than trying to parse out a more specific problem.

[8] William Hasker, “Must God Do His Best?” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984) 216-17.

[9] Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) 217.

[10] If the reader is not convinced that the goose/tern scenario is a gratuitous evil, assume for the sake of argument that it is or feel free to replace it with a scenario of your own. My answer uses it as a case study but will apply to gratuitous evil in general rather than merely this scenario alone.

[11] Nash, Faith and Reason, 210.

[12] Cited in Feinberg, Many Faces of Evil, 379.

[13] Ibid.

[14] William P. Alston, “The Inductive Argument from Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition” in Philosophical Perspectives, Vol. 5, Philosophy of Religion (1991) 60.

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