The Evil God Challenge (part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on June 7, 2009 in Christian Theology,Reviews

morgothIn my last post, I summarized Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge: Why is it more reasonable to believe in an all-good god than to believe in an all-evil god? Now I turn to some Christian responses to the Evil God Challenge.

Christians might say that an all-good god is more probable because certain arguments – arguments from miracles and religious experience – do indicate, specifically, a good god. Only a good god would respond to our prayers, or reveal himself to us.

But we can easily construct mirror arguments for an evil god, Law writes:

Suppose the evil god hypothesis is true. This malignant being may not want us to know of his existence. In fact, it may help him maximize evil if he deceives us about his true character.. Taking on a ‘good’ guise, he might appear in one corner of the world, revealing himself in religious experiences and performing miracles in response to prayers, and perhaps also giving instructions regarding what his followers should believe. He might then do the same in another part of the globe, with the exception [that] the instructions he leaves regarding what should be believed contradict what he has said elsewhere. Our evil being could then stand back and watch the inevitable conflict develop between communities to whom he has now misleadingly revealed himself, each utterly convinced by their own stock of miracles and religious experiences that the one true all-good god is on their side. Here we have a recipe for ceaseless conflict, violence and suffering.

…While a good god might create miracles and religious experiences, it is difficult to see why he would produce them in this way, given the predictably horrific consequences.

The Christian might respond: “But surely nothing is worse than hell. Why wouldn’t an all-evil god send us straight to hell?”

The obvious atheist response is: “And why wouldn’t an all-good god send us straight to heaven?”

Well, what about the moral argument for God’s existence? Doesn’t this show that a good god is more likely than an evil god? Only a good god would endow us with a moral sense that can tell right from wrong. But, no:

…an evil god might well also have an interest in providing such a sense. For by providing us with both free will and knowledge of good and evil, an evil god can allow for the very great evil of our freely performing evil actions in the full knowledge that they are, indeed, evil.

Okay, but what about a different kind of moral argument which says that a good God is necessary for the existence of moral values? Here we face the Euthyphro dilemma. Is goodness good because God says so, or does God say so because it is good? If God says so because it is good, then there is a standard of goodness independent of God, which is equally compatible with a good or evil god. But if goodness is good because God says so, then this makes the commands of God arbitrary, which is equally a problem for a good god and an evil god.

So, the symmetry between the good god hypothesis and the evil god hypothesis remains unbroken.

Now, what about ontological arguments? Don’t they demonstrate, specifically, a morally perfect God? Law’s first response is to say that many – perhaps most – theistic philosophers don’t think ontological arguments succeed (let alone atheist philosophers). Law’s second response is to say that some ontological arguments are reversible, too:

I can conceive of an evil god – a being whom no worse can be conceived. But it is worse for such being to exist in reality than in the imagination. Therefore, the being of which I conceive must exist in reality.

Law briefly engages many other possible objections: additional theodicies, impossibility arguments against the concept of an evil god, and so on. Really, Law discusses so many points that he cannot engage any of them in much detail. Now, we wait for the philosophical community to write response articles that engage specific points of Law’s article in greater detail.

Though I am amused by the symmetry between the good god hypothesis and the evil god hypothesis, it is obvious to me that the hypothesis of a morally indifferent God is far more probable than either an evil god or a good god.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric June 7, 2009 at 6:47 am

I didn’t see a response in Law’s paper to the notion that since god is in essence pure actuality (i.e. not comprised of potency and act, but is act itself), and since evil is in essence a privation (fundamentally, essential privation, pragmatic privation, and individual privation), that therefore the very conception of an evil god is incoherent (i.e. a ‘purely actual privation’ is a contradiction in terms).


lukeprog June 7, 2009 at 8:14 am


Ah, yes, he did not address that. I’m not well-versed in the privation theory of evil, so I won’t address it either. :)


Taranu June 7, 2009 at 10:45 am

This post says something skeptical about God as actus purus, but it’s not from  Stephan Law.


Dace June 7, 2009 at 3:02 pm

Eric, I think your answer is here:

“4. Arguments from simplicity
What if the good god hypothesis is significantly simpler than the evil god hypothesis?
For example, we might suggest that a good god can be defined in a simple way, e.g. as possessing every positive attribute. As goodness is a positive attribute, it follows this god is good. The concept of an evil god, by contrast, is more complex, for he possesses both positive attributes (omniscience and omnipotence) and negative attributes (evil). Principles of parsimony require, then, that we favour the good god over the evil god hypothesis.”

Law doesn’t specifically address your point, but I think this makes it clear that the Evil God need not be entirely evil, rotten through the core, but just maximally evil, as rotten as can be. If this means that Evil God has to have some good qualities, so be it: the argument can still be run without making him all bad, since he’s still a pretty bad dude, all things considered.


lukeprog June 7, 2009 at 11:19 pm

What the heck? Stupid WordPress is not allowing comments on my latest post, ‘The KCA in Brief’. WordPress goes beserk when you resume an earlier numbered list; that might be the problem.


lukeprog June 8, 2009 at 5:45 am

Well, I recreated the post and now comments are working on ‘The KCA in Brief.’


Rob Jase June 10, 2009 at 4:36 pm

This is why Nyarlathotep makes perfectly logical sense.  Evil has to prolong existence so it can enjoy maximum suffering.


stephen law May 29, 2010 at 4:49 am

The argument that evil is a privation (it isn’t’ – and by no mean all theists think it is – but anyhow, let’s suppose it is for the sake of argument) and thus an evil God is an impossibility/incoherent (which also does not obviously follow) is dealt with in the paper, under the more general point that *all impossibility arguments can be dealt with by bracketing the impossibility and saying, but, if it had turned out an evil God was not an impossibility, how reasonable a belief would it then be, given the evidence? If the answer is: very unreasonable (and why wouldn’t it be – that’s the challenge), then the evil god challenge still works. We can ask the theist to explain why their theism should be considered any more reasonable.*


lukeprog May 29, 2010 at 9:45 am

Thanks, Stephen!


G'DIsraeli August 17, 2010 at 12:42 am

How does god get his properties? by defining him with those properties? Never understood it.


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