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Why God can’t be evil

An exceptionally tardy response to Stephen Law’s inept challenge.

A philosopher named Stephen Law, who amply demonstrates the inadequacies of the PhD system, thinks God could just as easily be evil as good. This is old news, but recently a reader of this blog asked me why he must be wrong. The refutations of Law’s challenge have either disappeared (thanks to Paul Manata for his superbly itchy trigger finger), or take a lot of “philosophical draw weight” to understand.

So let me sketch the main reason why the evil-god challenge is profoundly misinformed—indeed, incoherent—and why it glances off the hide of classical Christianity with nary a twinge.

Goodness is irreducibly basic

Suppose Law is right. Suppose that God is the kind of being who desires the utmost suffering.

Now, what makes it evil for God to desire the utmost suffering?

It can’t be that his desires violate some standard of virtue or goodness, because there is no standard outside of God. If God desired suffering, then suffering would be objectively desirable. Indeed, all the things we consider virtues would actually be vices; things like unity and peace and love and joy and so on.

But it is not only obviously mistaken to think this, but obviously incoherent—because this would make virtue explicable only by reference to vice. We could only explain what goodness was by comparing it to evil. But in fact, the opposite is true: we know that goodness is not explicable in terms of anything except itself—it is irreducibly basic—whereas evil is generally best explained by reference to good: as a failure of good, or a privation of good. So the evidence on the ground tells us that goodness is actually what God is, not evil, and that an evil god is therefore a contradiction in terms and can’t get off the ground.

Another way to run this objection is to consider the nature of evil God a bit more closely. Evil God wants to suffer. Evil God wants to wither. In fact, evil God wants to die. He does not experience joy, peace, unity or anything else, and he doesn’t want to. If he did, that would be a backdoor admission that these things are good, and therefore that evil God is just leeching off some standard of goodness outside himself—namely, actual God! But…here’s the problem: does evil God desire to suffer and wither? Wouldn’t that itself be a backdoor admission that evil God thinks suffering and withering are good?

Put more simply, does evil God think that evil is evil…or does he think that evil is good?

Thus the profound incoherence of the concept becomes clear. It is a genuine embarrassment to see a PhD philosopher touting this as a serious challenge to theism.

2 comments

  1. James

    Would you also agree with this on why God can’t be evil?

    1.God is Eternal.
    2.God is immutable(can’t change due to being Eternal).
    3.God has shown His love and kindness through miracles,etc.
    4.Therefore God can’t be evil.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I would tend to agree that this is a way for a Christian to know that God is not evil. But it doesn’t answer Law’s challenge, which is philosophical.

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