Is There a Response to the Probabilistic Problem of Evil?

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According to philosopher Peter Van Inwagen, the argument that evil and suffering in the world disproves the existence of God is no longer defended by philosophers,

“It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God. That no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended” (1).

However, there has indeed been a variation of this argument presented: the probabilistic argument from evil and suffering. The argument is that rather than “disproving” the existence of God, all the suffering and evil in the world makes it highly improbable that a caring, personal God exists, at least the one conceived of within the Christian tradition. Philosopher William Lane Craig explains it in this way,

“In the probabilistic version of the problem, the admission is made that it is possible that God and evil co-exist, but it is insisted that it is highly improbable that both God and the evil in the world exist. Thus, the Christian theist is stuck with two beliefs which tend to undermine each other. Given that the evil in the world is real, it is highly improbable that God exists” (2).

However, there could be reason to doubt the probabilistic argument, or to at least urge readers to look into it with a more critical eye. The late Christian philosopher William Alston (d. 2009), in one of his articles on the evidential problem of evil, lists six cognitive limitations that human beings possess that make it impossible for them to judge whether or not God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world (3). This is a commonly used apologetic that challenges the argument from evil and suffering, which pushes back on the assumptions made by skeptics. The assumption challenge concerns on what grounds can human beings know that God does not have morally permissible reasons for allowing there to exist evil and suffering in the world? Alston supports this claim through the following cognitive limitations:

[1] A lack of data. Our ignorance of the distant future, or the distant past; our ignorance of the ultimate constitution of the universe, the secrets of the human heart.

[2] Complexity greater than we can handle. For example, trying to understand different systems of natural law – in which different laws of nature operate – we have no clue about what systems are available to God.

[3] The difficulty of knowing what is metaphysically possible. How do we know what logically imaginable worlds are actually metaphysically possible?

[4] Our ignorance of the full range of possibilities. We don’t know how these are restricted.

[5] Our ignorance of the full range of values. This is to say there may be unknown goods, that God brings about, that we are not even aware of.

[6] The limits of our capacity to make well-considered value judgements. That is to say, to be able to compare different possible worlds with a view toward determining which world would be the best.

Alston’s six points seem to encompass what he believes is the limited nature of the human being’s cognition, particularly on the person’s ability to predict future outcomes,

“We are simply not in a position to justifiably assert that God would have no sufficient reason for permitting evil. And if that is right, the probabilistic argument from evil is in no better shape than its late, lamented, logical cousin.”

Craig contends that this shows that evil and suffering can exist in a universe under the sovereign control of a loving God who uses it to fulfill his purposes,

“it is not at all improbable that natural and moral evils are part of the means which he [God] uses to bring people into his kingdom and to give them eternal life and everlasting happiness – in comparison to which, the sufferings of this life will diminish to infinitesimal proportions” (4).

One of the major contentions of Alston’s argument is that the skeptic’s argument from the probabilistic problem of evil against God’s existence exceeds his epistemic capabilities, and therefore cannot be rationally affirmed. If human beings cannot ever hope to possess a full knowledge of all possible future outcomes and possibilities then how can they claim with any certainty that a good and loving God could not have good reasons for allowing evil and suffering to exist, and for it to play a role within his creation? For Craig, “As long as it’s just possibly true, it proves that there is a possible world in which God and Evil co-exist.” And if there is a possible world in which this is the case then it suggests that there are no contradictions or incompatibilities between the existence of a good and loving God’s existence and the realities of evil and suffering.


1. Peter Van Inwagen quoted by Daniel Howard-Snyder in The Evidential Argument from Evil (2008). p. 151.

2. Craig, William. The Problem of Evil. Available.

3. Alston, William. 1991. Philosophical Perspectives of 1991.

4. William Lane Craig vs. A.C. Grayling. Belief in God Makes Sense in Light of Tsunamis. Available.



  1. Why is there such a problem with theologians on the subject of evil? The Bible quite plainly states that Satan is the “god of this world” and that he is the “prince of the power of the air”. I can never understand why he seems to be totally ignored whenever the topic of evil comes up, as much of it obviously down to his influence. Satan was in the Garden of Eden at the beginning, and he will be around right up to the end of the age, as confirmed in Revelation. What’s the problem?

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