A Response to Law’s “Evil-God Challenge” via Aquinas and Pascal

I’ve been spending a bit of time thinking about Stephen Law’s Evil-God Challenge.   Though I don’t think the challenge is without a response, I think it is something all theists should take the time to ponder.

Law describes the challenge in the following way:

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 belief in a good god? (Law 2010, 1).

Law develops a symmetry thesis between Good-God and evil-god.  Any reason that a theist might offer to think the Good-God hypothesis is reasonable, can be flipped to show that the Evil-god hypothesis is equally reasonable.   The theist rejects the view that evil should count against the Good-God thesis on the grounds of various defenses, or theodicies.  Law points out that the proponent of evil-god could offer parallel defenses for why evil-god might allow so much good, thus restoring parity in reasonableness between the two hypotheses. If you are interested in how Dr. Law flips each of these theodicies, I recommend reading his article, and blog.

Glenn Peoples’ recent podcast outlines some responses to the “Evil-God Challenge” primarily by way of the moral argument. In the first section of the podcast, Peoples points out that if Law wants to interact with classical theism, as he claims to do throughout his paper, then he must contend with the actual views of the classical theist with regard to fundamental concepts of God, good, and evil.  The classical theist views goodness as a transcendental property of being whereas evil is thought to be a privation of being.  Peoples points out that the concept of a god that is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally evil is incoherent for the classical theist.

I would develop a classical theist’s response to the evil-god challenge in the following way.  Good-God can be perfectly and completely good.  But in classical theism complete evil cannot exist.  Evil-god must, at the very least, exist, which is a good.  Law points out that evil-god must seek to fulfill his desire for evil.  But desire fulfillment is a good thing.  So Law admits that there are certain logical limits to how depraved evil-god could be.  He compares this to the limits many classical theists put on God’s omniscience, e.g. God cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it (Law 2010, 18).  The problem, though, is that while there may be symmetry in the ways in which evil-god and Good-God are omnipotent, there is no symmetry between the way in which Good-God can be good and evil-god can be evil.  Thus, of the two “gods” Good-God is superlative and pure with regard to moral-value, whereas evil-God is somewhat adulterated and mediocre in comparison.

This is where Aquinas’ Fourth-Way becomes extremely important in the classical theist’s defense against Law’s argument.  Aquinas writes:

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like. But “more” and “less” are predicated of different things, according as they resemble in their different ways something which is the maximum, as a thing is said to be hotter according as it more nearly resembles that which is hottest; so that there is something which is truest, something best, something noblest and, consequently, something which is uttermost being; for those things that are greatest in truth are greatest in being, as it is written in Metaph. ii. Now the maximum in any genus is the cause of all in that genus; as fire, which is the maximum heat, is the cause of all hot things. Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness, and every other perfection; and this we call God (ST I, Q. 1, A. 3).

Presented with either the completely good Good-God and the mostly evil evil-god, I think that the classical theist would find that it is more reasonable to think that a Good-God is the cause of the various degrees of goodness in the universe.  Evil-god, being somewhat good though mostly evil, is not the best explanation for the moral character of various entities throughout this world, since a more complete superlative explanation is forthcoming, caeteris paribus.  After all, there would seem to be some degree of goodness predicated of evil-god that cannot be accounted for by his evil nature alone.

To sum up, the classical theist would say that it is logically impossible that evil-God is perfectly evil, and that this means that there is asymmetry between the Good-God and evil-god hypotheses.    Further, the classical theist would say that the adulterated nature of evil-god’s moral character does not provide the best explanation for the gradations of goodness (and evil) we observe since a more complete paradigm can be postulated beyond evil-god as found in Good-God.

A second response that I would like to offer to the evil-God challenge is more of the pragmatic variety and is inspired by Blaise Pascal.  I consider this argument something of a fail-safe.  If all other attempts to address the challenge fail, there are still reasons to believe Good-God over evil-god simply because one has little to gain from belief in evil-god and possibly much to lose.  Conversely, belief in Good-God offers us little to lose and everything to gain.  Law asked for a reason to believe one over the other, but he didn’t say that the reason couldn’t be of a practical nature.

As a matter of fact Pascal did not think that the existence of God could be settled by theoretical arguments alone, yet he thought belief in God was far more rational than disbelief.  His wager is  essentially a quadrilemma resulting from crossing two sets of disjunctions:  1. Either you believe God exists or you don’t, and  2. Either God exists, or God does not exist.  Pascal’s wager takes into consideration  the possible outcomes of believing or not believing in God:

  1. If you believe in God and God exists, you have the opportunity to develop the proper relationship with God so that you could attain eternal life.
  2. If you believe in God and God does not exist, you your life on the presumption of this error, with some finite harms associated with living under such false presumptions.
  3. If you disbelief in God and God exists, you give up on the opportunity to develop a relationship with God and risk eternal damnation.
  4. If you disbelieve God and God does not exist, you are correct in your belief about God and have a more accurate conception of reality than theists–a small boon.

As a response to the evil-god challenge, I am suggesting that we simply add a bit more to the possible disjunctions.  We might say that the possibilities are that evil-god exist, Good-God exists, or neither of them exist.  You could believe in evil-God, believe in Good-God, or believe in no gods.  The result is nine possible outcomes:

  1. If you believe in Good-God and Good-God exists, then you have a shot at eternal salvation, an infinite gain.
  2. If you believe in Good-God and evil-god exists, then you will be tormented eternally, or annihilated.
  3. If you believe in Good-God and no God exists, then you will be in error and suffer the consequences of behaving a certain way due to an erroneous belief.
  4. If you believe in evil-God and God-God exists, it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  5. If you believe in evil-God and evil-God exists, then evil-God will torment you, because he wants to maximize evil and wouldn’t want to reward even correct belief.
  6. If you believe in evil-God and no-God exists, then you have lived your life with an erroneous belief and suffer the limitations in your behavior due to this error.
  7. If you believe in no gods and Good-God exists, then once again it is possible that you have offended and blasphemed Good-God and denied Him the worship and adoration due.  Salvation is in jeopardy.
  8. If you believe in no gods and Evil-God exists, then he will torment or annihilate you, for he cares little that you were an atheist.
  9. If you believe in no gods and no gods exist, congratulations.  You believed something that is true, and you have the opportunity to live according to this true belief.  A small boon.

Overall, we see that belief in Good-God provides the best possible outcomes. Believing in evil-God offers no advantage whatsoever while believing in no gods offers the same possible limited outcome that Pascal expected the rational decision maker to reject in his original gambit.  But the only point we need to make is that it is not rational to believe evil-god from a pragmatic point of view whatsoever.

I don’t think Law could flip this without supposing that evil-God would offer infinite rewards for true-belief.  But if evil-god offers rewards, he fails to be maximally evil.   This would not be a matter of evil-god running up against the logical limits of evil, it would merely be an attempt by the proponent of the “Evil-God Challenge” to restore symmetry.  But in restoring symmetry in the wager, he destroys the symmetry between there being a maximally-Good God and a maximally evil-god–an integral hypothesis to the challenge.  Therefore, I don’t think any attempt to flip this theodicy could succeed.

There are some criticisms to Pascal’s wager and I cannot take them all on here.  I will limit myself to a couple.  1.  There are many revelations of God, what if we believe Good-God, but the wrong one?  2.  The wager motivates and insincere form of belief that may not be salvific.

Briefly, one could respond to the first point by saying that while the amount of revelations diminishes the possibility of correctly selecting the correct revelation of God, you can’t win if you don’t play.  In other words, this is not an argument against choosing to believe in a Good-God, it merely points out that such a belief may only be a necessary and not sufficient condition for reaping the reward.  So be it.  I don’t think this makes the decision to believe in Good-God any less rational.

Nonetheless, I do think that Christianity is the best religion to place one’s bet upon.  This is because I think the real true Good-God would offer a revelation.  Of the revealed religions, it is better to bet on a religion that believes immortality and some kind if salvation.  Why bet on a religion that offers no salvation when others that are on the table do?  Of salvific religions, it is better to bet on exclusivistic religion rather than a universal/pluralistic one.  After all, if a universalist religion is true, your going to be saved anyways.! Of exclusivistic religions, some offer salvation by works and others offer salvation through cooperation with grace.  It is more rational to be receptive to salvation by grace and do good works, then to do good works and not be receptive to God’s grace.  For if God wants good works, it is possible that those who believe salvation is a gift of grace might yet be saved if they also strive to live a good life.  So while the plurality of revealed religions might make the gambit a little more complicated, I still think we can still navigate it.  We are looking for a religion that is revealed, offers belief in salvation and immortality, is exclusivistic, and its theory of salvation is such that it is achieved through grace, but encourages good works.  I can only think of one religion that fits the bill.  And this does not even get into the historical arguments for the Resurrection!

My response to the second point actually draws upon my response to the first.  Pascal realized this objection, but noted that we can act into our belief.  Knowing that the rational decision is to believe in a Good-God, we can become sincere in our beliefs by participating in services, praying, and worshiping.  I think Pascal is describing a real phenomenon. The alternatives to belief in Good-God will eventually cease to be living options, if I can borrow a term from William James, and we will cease to entertain them in much the way we don’t entertain the possibility of Greek polytheism being true.  With only one living option, I think sincerity will set into place with time.

But even if we can’t act into the belief, Pascal does not think that the right belief will save us.  Rather, his wager removes obstacles to belief.  If the above analysis is correct, the most rational religion to believe is the one that claims salvation is a gift from God with which we must cooperate.  I may not be completely sincere in my belief, but some kind of belief is a necessary condition in cooperating with grace.  One does not earn one’s salvation through sincerity.  So if all we can do is cooperate with God’s grace for ulterior motives, then that is the best we can do.  I think God will meet us where we are and transform our insincere emotions to match the convictions of our wills.

Now this post has gone on far longer than I anticipated.  I would like to continue to refine my arguments.  But for now I hope to read some reactions from my readers.


Law, S. 2010. The Evil-God Challenge. Religious Studies. Vol. 46. Cambridge University Press. DOI: 10.1017/S0034412509990369

Posted on January 5, 2012, in Atheistic Arguments and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. My problem with the wager is the assumption we can choose what to believe. I think that can be achieved by some, but only by loss of integrity, a dishonest weighing of the evidence. I’m not persuaded a good God would reward such behaviour.

  2. Giles, thanks for the response. I think it is important to keep Pascal’s theology in mind. Salvation is not merited by faith. Salvation is a gift that God is freely offering to all. But we can freely turn away from that free gift. The wager doesn’t advise us to be dishonest or deceptive. Rather, Pascal says that if we cannot believe, though we reason that we ought to, we should act our we into genuine belief through participation. I think there is good evidence that actions can help us to adopt beliefs. Lastly, this is not a dishonest weighing of the evidence. If you read the wager, Pascal says that the philosophical evidence is not decisive on way or the other.

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