No God, No Evil

The world is not as it should be. Real evil exists, and we have all experienced it in some way. In the face of all this evil, many hold that an all-loving and all-good God cannot exist. However, I want to suggest that the existence of real evil, far from disproving God’s existence, actually confirms it.
Here’s why: When we say that real evil exists, we are saying that things are not as they should be. But talk of how things “should be” commits us to the reality of purposes, intentions, and design. And these things. it seems, are features of minds. So when we say that events in the universe are not as they should be, we are really saying that the universe is not operating according to its purpose or intended goal. But since talk of a “purpose” or “intended goal” must reference a mind from which they are derived, there has to be a mind greater than the universe that ordered it to function in a certain way.
We can formulate the argument as follows:

  1. If real evil exists, then the universe is not as it should be.
  2. If the universe is not as it should be, then there is a way the universe should be.
  3. If there is a way the universe should be, then the universe has a designer.
  4. Real evil exists.
  5. Therefore, the universe has a designer.

Let’s examine these premises in closer detail.
Premises 1 & 2
Real evil exists, not just as a subjective reflection of our beliefs, tastes, and preferences, but as an objective feature of reality. Actions like rape, child-sacrifice, and ethnic cleansing are self-evidently evil. Their obvious immorality needs no further justification. As Michael Ruse aptly puts it, “The man who says that it is morally acceptable to rape little children is just as mistaken as the man who says, 2+2=5.”[1] In this respect, I take the truth of the fourth premise to be so basic that I will not say anything further in its defense. Indeed, any argument for this claim would arguably rely on premises less obvious than the conclusion.
Given that real evil does exist, what exactly is it? We are all familiar with examples of evil things, but what is evil itself? We can begin to approach this question by analyzing various examples of evil things and discerning what they all share in common. Consider five things that are considered bad or evil in varying senses of the term: a broken leg, physical and emotional pain, divorce, genocide, and a hurricane that destroys a city. What makes these things bad or evil?
Start with the broken leg: legs are built for walking, and so a leg that isn’t fit for walking is a bad leg. Both the broken leg and other physical ailments are bad in the sense that they involve a defect, malfunction, or the destruction of some body part that ought to be functioning in a certain way. Physical and emotional pain involves much the same: both involve are bad because they signal the presence of physical or emotional disharmony in an individual.[2] In the third example, marriage is supposed to involve a commitment towards lifelong faithfulness. Accordingly, divorce (whether justified or not) is bad because it indicates that a marriage has strayed from this goal. It is a deviation from the norm of what marriage should be. Genocide and other acts of mistreatment can be characterized as evil because they involve treating people in ways that they should not be treated. They involve a lack of love towards one’s fellow man. Finally, a hurricane that destroys a city involves the infliction of an evil because it involves the destruction of something good, namely human settlements. The hurricane itself isn’t evil, but the destruction is.
Notice that in all five examples, badness or evil is present in the sense that something is not as it should be. There is a lack of something that ought to be present. The content of each evil is different, but their form is the same. In each case, there is something good that should be present, and what makes each thing an evil is the fact that there is a corruption, deprivation, or turning away from this good.
Here is another way to see this point: Our everyday ascriptions of goodness and badness are based on an understanding of how things ought to be. For instance, pencils are for writing, and for that reason we say that a good pencil is one that writes well, while a bad pencil is one that does not write well. Similarly, doctors are supposed to restore health, and so a good doctor is one who performs his job properly, while a bad doctor is one who does not. In each case, when we call something good, we are saying that it is the way things ought to be. Conversely, when we call something bad, we are saying that things are not the way they should be. All ascriptions of goodness and badness only make sense when considered in relation to how something ought to be. To borrow an example from Peter Geach, I cannot know what a good or bad hygrometer is if I do not know how hydrometers are supposed to be.[3]
Evil, then, is a privation. It is a lack of a good thing that should otherwise be there. It has no independent being of its own. Rather, it is parasitic upon there being something that is good. What this means is that if evil exists, so must something good (but not vice-versa).
We may now draw two conclusions from this, corresponding to the first two premises of our argument. First, if evil exists in the universe, then the universe is not as it should be. Second, if the universe is not as it should be, then there is a way the universe should be.
Premise 3
To say that something is bad or evil is to say that it isn’t the way things ought to be. This, in turn, commits us to the existence of a way that things ought to be. But talk of how something ought or should be is to reference a plan or purpose for its existence. Plans and purposes, in turn, are rooted in intentions, which are a feature of minds.
An example might help: Consider a bad engine. A bad engine is one that doesn’t work as engines should. But if the engine is not working as it should, then there must be a plan or purpose for how that engine ought to function properly. This plan or purpose is rooted in the minds of the engineers who designed that engine. The normativity or “oughtness” present in the engine is a sign of intentionality, and intentionality is a mark of the mental.
This same point applies to anything that has a standard of normativity attached to it, whether simple or complex. Notice that in the engine example, what’s doing the work isn’t the complexity of the engine, but the fact that the engine is purposed towards fulfilling a certain goal. If something possesses a standard of normativity, then that standard of normativity must ultimately be rooted in a mental reality.
Let’s now scale up this argument. Consider now the universe. If real evil exists, then the universe is not as it should be. This of course means that there must be a way that the universe should be. But talk of a way the universe “should be” must reference a plan or purpose for the universe, which in turn must reference a mental reality. So, if if there is a way the universe should be, then the universe must have a designer. We have thus established the truth of premise 3.
Premise 5
Having established that real evil exists, we may now conclude the argument. Since evil is a deviation, corruption, or absence of the way things ought to be, there must be a way that the universe ought to be. This in turn must commit us to the existence of a mind that imparted this normativity to the universe. There must, therefore, be a designer of the universe.
What can we conclude about the identity of this designer? Three things jump out immediately. First, the designer must be intelligent in order for it to devise and impart a myriad of plans and purposes within the universe. Second, the designer must be a mind analogous to ours, given that intelligence is a mark of personhood. Third, this designer must be a moral authority, for the nature of both moral and non-moral goodness is rooted in the intentions it has for the universe. All this sounds very much like God, traditionally conceived.
The Problem of Evil?
What this argument shows is that the very existence of evil points toward the existence of God. And if that’s the case, then evil certainly can’t be a problem for the existence of God. We may not know the exact reasons why God allows evil, but we can be confident that evil does not show his non-existence—indeed, it shows the opposite! The problem of evil still remains a problem, but not for the theist. It is a problem for the atheist.
In this sense, this version of the moral argument for God’s existence knocks out two birds with one stone. It offers evidence for God’s existence while simultaneously knocking out the most common argument against it.


[1] Michael Ruse, Darwinism Defended (London: Addison-Wesley, 1982), p. 275.

[2] See Patrick Lee, “The Goodness of Creation, Evil, and Christian Teaching,” The Thomist 64 (2000): 239–70.

[3] Peter Geach, “Good and Evil,” Analysis 17 (1956): 32–42.