Why arguing about “gratuitous” evil may be fruitless

If there is one objection to the existence of God which I think I can sympathize with, it’s the problem of evil.  It is emotionally compelling since we have all experienced evil to one degree or another in our lives, and much of it may seem rather gratuitous.  Briefly, I take gratuitous evil to mean an instance of evil for which there is no redeeming purpose.  I really don’t want to quibble too much in defining evil, I don’t want to get to a place where the overall point is muddied in semantics.  More or less I don’t think identifying evil acts is all too controversial.  So here are a few reasons why I believe arguing either for or against gratuitous evil isn’t likely to get us very far.

Not everyone will agree that gratuitous evil exists.  With some Christian defenders this will be in dispute.  For example, a Christian who holds to a rigid view of Sovereignty will argue that every incident of evil is divinely orchestrated with a greater redeeming purpose in view even if we are unaware of that purpose, and I’m not unsympathetic to this view.  On this view, by God’s expressed Sovereignty, there can exist no gratuitous act.  Also, there are Christians who believe that God has instilled man with a libertarian freedom with which we are genuinely in control of our actions.  In this case, there would most certainly exist gratuitous evil.  Then there Christians who hold to a form of compatiblism whereby our actions are free choices from our perspective but planned by God. Here, there may or may not be acts of gratuitous evil.  I think the Atheist view is more in line with the libertarian view believing that many acts of evil have no redeeming purpose.  As an Atheist, and seemingly by the necessity of philosophical naturalism, most — if not all — evil is gratuitous (though it’s not clear to me how Atheists can speak in moral terms without being inconsistent with their atheism), which brings me to my next point.

Not everyone will agree on how much evil is actually gratuitous.  By extension, your view on human agency will determine how much evil serves no redeeming purpose.  It would appear that only the Christian defender who holds the rigid Sovereignty view of human agency can believe with any certainty how much evil is gratuitous: None.  All other views cannot declare with any certainty how many acts are gratuitously evil which makes the discussion that much more difficult.  At what point do we say there are too many gratuitous evil acts?  Is there an acceptable number of gratuitously evil acts which would be considered compatible with God’s existence?  How would something like that even be decided, and worse, agreed upon?

It is too difficult to know what is gratuitous and what isn’t.  This is where I believe the discussion breaks down in the most significant way.  We just aren’t in a position to know which if any evil acts serve no redeeming purpose whatsoever.  On the Christian view, broadly speaking, God may very well use evil acts for a not immediately known good.

For example, a drunk driver who strikes and kills a 6 year-old riding his bicycle and escapes jail time may seem to be a gratuitous evil incident.  On the Christian view, if the event brings the little boy’s parents close to God who otherwise weren’t, this would be considered a good thing if it led to their salvation.  Let’s say prior to losing their son, the parents were atheist leaning agnostics who were on their way to eternal damnation, but now have trusted in Christ for remission of their sins as a result of the tragedy.  This is a far greater good than the parents never converting — in the eternal sense with a long-term end in mind.

But this concept can also work on atheism.  Let’s further say this little boy were to become the next Hitler, or Stalin…or Ahmadinejad.  This little boy’s death has potentially spared the world of countless greater (in quality and quantity) evils.

Of course, this can work in the opposite direction too.  The little boy could have grown up to cure cancer, HIV, or some other worthy discovery.  This is the point though.  We just aren’t in a position to make the judgement that an act we believe in our ignorance of the future to be gratuitous, actually is.

Not knowing what might or might not be gratuitous is not a liability.  The Christian defender’s inability to identify a redeeming purpose to a seemingly unmitigated act of evil doesn’t render in any way his position false.  Likewise the Atheist’s inability to prove an evil act to be gratuitous doesn’t endow the act with purpose either.  There is nothing to conclude by either the Christian or the Atheist’s inability to defend or prosecute an act as redeemable or gratuitous.

Not everyone will accept an explanation.  Atheists may offer an example of what they believe to be an evil act with no redeeming value, and the Christian defender may also have an answer for it.  However, the Atheist is unlikely to grant the Christian’s defense of the evil act for whatever reason.  He may not believe what the Christian claims is a greater good is worth the trade-off of experiencing the evil.  In the above example with the drunk driver, the Atheist is not likely to concede that the parent’s subsequent conversion is of redemptive quality enough to overcome their son’s death.  Similarly, the Christian defender will not likely acquiesce to the Atheist’s inability to see any plausible good which might come from an evil act.  It’s not uncommon for these polar opposites to be at loggerheads on this with one another, especially if it means ceding ground in this argument.

My view on gratuitous evil:

I think we have been granted by God a degree of libertarian freedom.  And as such, I am willing to accept that some evil might in fact have no redeeming purpose, but only in theory.  I realize it sounds like I’m granting something with one hand and taking it away with the other.  But for the most part, we are free and God intervenes and plans as he sees fit.  How often and to what degree, we don’t know.  For example, I don’t think God cares what my favorite sports teams are, or which shoe I tie first and I am likely uninfluenced by God on issues like these.  However, God may very well have an interest which route I take on the drive home and influences a chain of events which either causes me to avoid a tragedy, or become entrenched by one.  For the most part I think most — if not all — acts which seem to be gratuitous serve a greater purpose of varying degrees regardless of whether this purpose is readily known or even discoverable.  Despite being in the dark at to whether or not an evil act is gratuitous in many cases, I think more often than not we can offer at least a plausible redemptive quality to an evil act.  I don’t, however, believe a majority of evil need be explainable in order to reject the proposition: There’s too much gratuitous evil, therefore, God doesn’t or is unlikely to exist.


  1. Lots of comments here, but I think you fail to recognize that free will, even in the most libertarian sense, is always limited by the capabilities of the individual. A starving child in a remote wilderness can’t ‘choose’ not to starve to death. A doctor treating cleft pallets in Bangladesh can’t ‘choose’ not to be swept away in a typhoon. Or maybe all 500 of those who helped clean up the Japanese power plant disaster, knowing it was a death sentence for them but a boon to the environment and their fellow humans, deserved to die for their selfless act.

    God, a being necessarily all powerful, all knowing, and all good has a high standard set by believing Christians. It is that god that does not fit the world. Because it is only that being that has not only libertarian free will but no restriction at all on His capabilities. Only that God will know of the impending typhoon or starvation, know of the plight of the cleft pallet doctor or child, and have the power to remedy those situations.

    It is not really a choice or preference here. Logically speaking, either God is not all powerful or not all good. If God is not all powerful, then he isn’t God. A Being may be not All-Good, but I choose the charitable interpretation that God simply does not exist. Bad things happen but there is no demon visiting suffering on the world or sitting by as suffering happens worldwide.

    Evidence shows there can logically be no God in the Christian sense. There can be a Devil in a world such as this. The Devil has a lower standard – allowing good is of no consequence – engaging in evil at a whim is all that is necessary. God or Devil, such a being does not deserve worship.

    Again, best to reject such terrible fantasies and celebrate a natural, if uncaring, universe. It is more consistent with the evidence and helps us to band together to live better lives.

    • I think a problem you and some other people who make the objection “you cant will a starving child…” is that you think it is somehow a liability. Of course we cant choose to be dinosaurs or materialize a steak for a hungry child. That would be magic. Lets deal with what’s being talked about. People’s decisions to act in certain ways, not people’s decisions to alter reality.

      You also completely overlook that it is people who are overwhelmingly responsible for their conditions. They live in typhoon zones, and they live where there’s no food. They oppress others by withholding food supplies with their government or military power. You also presume in all of this that alleviation of what you consider suffering is more preferable than having free agency. Just out of curiosity, how much time and money do you donate to charities that feed starving children and finance cleft palate surgery for children? Probably zero. So before blaming God for not stepping in, perhaps you could forgo some of your luxuries for the greater good, and spend a little less time suing to have crosses removed and a little more time doing something worth while? Or is it God’s fault you sit on your hands?

      Perhaps sharing the “evidence” that there cannot be the Christian God instead of a mild reference to the Euthyphro Dilemma would make better conversation.

  2. I think the biggest problem with people using the argument of evil against the existance of God is that their definition of evil is so broad, it’s meaningless. Basically, “if I don’t like it/disagree with it/don’t think it should happen, it’s evil.”

    My thought is that we first have to be very clear about what is or isn’t evil, and to me, what makes something evil is intent. The child starving in the wilderness is not evil. A child starved to death by a parent, is. The drunk driver in the example in the post is not necessarily evil – the driver might be too drunk to form any sort of intent. A sober driver who deliberately runs someone over *is* doing evil. It’s the difference between killing, accidental death or deathy through tragedy, and murder.

    I find many of the arguments about evil, gratuitous or not, are actually about tragedy.

  3. “God created things which had free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata -of creatures that worked like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to Him and to each other in an ecstasy of love and delight compared with which the most rapturous love between a man and a woman on this earth is mere milk and water. And for that they’ve got to be free.
    Of course God knew what would happen if they used their freedom the wrong way: apparently, He thought it worth the risk. (…) If God thinks this state of war in the universe a price worth paying for free will -that is, for making a real world in which creatures can do real good or harm and something of real importance can happen, instead of a toy world which only moves when He pulls the strings- then we may take it it is worth paying.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity

  4. JB – it so happens I do donate to cleft pallet and hunger charities. That’s why I’m aware of the issues. But we’re not talking about me or even people who ‘choose’ to live in dangerous areas. Both cases, the cleft pallet doctor and the starving child, are valid. The starving child chose nothing. The cleft pallet doctor chose to go to that area to do good. Do you think it’s just to punish him with death for his act of goodwill? If he was in another area, it might have been death from heat or a blizzard or earthquake or flash floods or tornadoes or maybe being hit by lightning. Natural disasters happen everywhere, so you can’t distract by blaming people for where they live.

    And this isn’t about me either. I assure you I have a concern for improving the world and spend every day trying, even right now. The point here is that you claim a powerful and good god. Epicurus paradox applies – reality precludes an all good, all powerful god. The Euthyphro dilemma is your conflation of god’s will with ethics. But those philosophical arguments aside, this is about god. Evil exists. God doesn’t prevent it… even though he could do so without precluding free will. I would posit that a powerful and good God could INCREASE free will by allowing destitute and disempowered people the opportunity to do things that are not naturally in their power to do – like eat or survive.

    don’t distract with what I could do or what some people might have done wrong. Contemplate for a moment that your God sits unmoving in the face of suffering and death. You’ll find the charitable judgment of such inaction in the face of evil is that the defendant doesn’t exist.

    … on to the ‘new’ gratuitous evil thread.

    • Jason
      You’re right, the child didnt choose where to live, his parents did. They are the ones who should have thought about their ability to feed children before taking part in procreative acts. I blame them. You seem to not want to. You seem to believe that people should be able to live in flood zones, deserts, and tornado prone areas and incur no consequence of nature and their decision to not live in a safer place. I hold people accountable for their decisions and how they impact others. You blame God.

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