On a repugnant presentation of the Argument from Evil

A cartoon version of the argument from evil has been making the rounds on the internet. I refuse to post it or link to it, though I’ll describe it since this neutralizes what is wrong with it. The cartoon is divided into three boxes. In the first, there is a starry-eyed and frivolous-looking woman thanking Jesus for helping her find her car keys; in the second there is an athlete pointing to heaven with bravado and thanking Jesus for helping him score a touchdown, and in the third box there is a captionless photograph of a starving and emaciated black child. It is morally repugnant since it is wrong to use photographs of another person’s suffering in the context of flippant sarcasm and cynical irony. The cause one is promoting is obviously irrelevant to the matter – it would be easy to use photographs of suffering in this flippant and cynical way to condemn anything, including atheist regimes, (how hard could it be to find pictures of the starving children of the Poles, Kulaks, Jews, Cambodian intellectuals, Ukrainians, Chinese ‘counter-revolutionaries’, etc.?) but it would be just as wrong to do so.

At any rate, the cartoon is just as much a critique of the Argument from Evil as a presentation of it – and it might well be a critique precisely because it presents it. To make this clear, note that both Maximilian Kolbe and Victor Frankl were victims of starvation as extreme as anyone has experienced, and yet to place a picture of either of them in the third box of the cartoon would destroy any point that the atheist could make. For that matter, the sadistic juridical torture and murder of Jesus was no less unjust than what the child is enduring, and yet one cannot make the third picture a scene of the crucifixion. If the problem is that the suffering is the suffering of a child, why would it also destroy the atheist’s point to show us the suffering of Maria Goretti or the Holy Innocents? So what exactly is the evil that the atheist is appealing to if it is neither the injustice nor the pain of the situation?

The  answer is that the atheist is appealing to gratuitous evil – a privation that is defined as so extreme or so peculiar that it cannot be a part of a meaningful life.  This is the crucial thing to note about all arguments from evil – they ultimately turn on whether there is some sort of evil that can never be given meaning by the one who experiences it. This formulation is not tendentious: all accounts of gratuitous evil speak of evils that “cannot be ordered to some good”, but a meaningful life is clearly a good.

The more we uncover what exactly the argument from evil presupposes, the more we start to see that it is not just taking the fact of evil, but is rather making a very profound, far-reaching, dubious, and unexpressed judgment about evil. In fact, the AFE is not merely a refutation of theism but an inversion of it. Speaking in another context, Chesterton saw the judgment at the foundation of the argument from evil perfectly, and diagnosed why men advance and accept it:

They do it because they are, like all men, primarily inspired by religion. For them, as for all men, the first fact is their notion of the nature of things; their idea about what world they are living in. And it is their faith that the only ultimate thing is fear and therefore that the very heart of the world is evil. They believe that death is stronger than life, and therefore dead things must be stronger than living things; whether those dead things are gold and iron and machinery or rocks and rivers and forces of nature. It may sound fanciful to say that men we meet at tea table es or talk to at garden-parties are secretly worshippers of Baal or Moloch [but this is so].


  1. thenyssan said,

    October 11, 2011 at 9:08 am

    From the moment I saw that cartoon, I knew it was as inevitable as the tides that you would eventually post this reply. I gotta stop reading you so much!

    There are so many ways to respond to or use the cartoon: it could be a critique of the shallowness of belief in panels 1 and 2, or one could point out that the relief in panels 1 and 2 just hasn’t happened yet in panel 3, or it could just inspire speechless wonder-in-sorrow. My own immediate reaction to the cartoon is sorrow for the child, followed by a resolve to pray and take action to help, and anger at the men and women who have caused or failed to alleviate this situation.

    To that, maybe I should add yours as a fourth: outrage that evil is being used for so petty an end. In any event, it is super-charged with meaning; considering the entire under-girding of the AFE, that’s pretty self-destructive for the atheist.

  2. Peter said,

    October 11, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Doesn’t every form of the AFE boil down to the premise that “what I don’t see a reason or meaning for doesn’t have one.” Isn’t that why we call such sufferings “gratuitous” in the first place: that we see no reason for them? Now if we left the discussion of evil to the side to clear the air and simply asked if anyone would accept that premise, would anyone?

  3. Brian said,

    October 11, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    I have read your post several times, James, and I still do not understand how the cartoon is a critique on the argument from evil. Perhaps you or a commenter can help me better understand how the cartoon undermines itself.

    I am glad you are responding to this, though. I think so many educated Christians forget the power of images. The cartoon has been seen and will continue to be seen by many people, but educated Christians have not substantively responded to it because it is crude. I think that is a mistake.

    I have been thinking about how to respond to this cartoon, but I am not a very good thinker. 😦 It does seem to me that the cartoon does raise a legitimate point. And that is, should we continue thanking God for frivolous things in light of the more urgent prayers that may go unanswered? If nothing else, isn’t it a bit tacky? Why would God “help” the baseball player hit a homerun and not help the starving child? That is basically what we are suggesting when we thank God for frivolous things, I think .

    • October 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm

      I can give a briefer form of the argument that goes for pith rather than fine detail.

      What sort of evil does the argument from evil turn on? Not just any evil will do – all sides agree that Socrates’s willing acceptance of death or the death of a child who dies forgiving her killers is the sort of evil that the AFE is looking for. So what makes the evil shown in the picture supposedly different? The answer that must come back is that it is a gratuitous evil, namely an evil is one that cannot be related to a good (philosophers all saw that this special sort of evil was necessary in order for the AFE to work). But any evil occurring in a meaningful life is related to the goodness of that life – this is precisely why the death of Socrates or the child who forgives her persecutors fails to prove the AFE. But even if one admits that some evils are of themselves meaningless, they can still be related and ordered to the meaning and purpose of ones own life. This point is, to my mind, proven beyond any possible dispute by Frankl in his Man’s Search for Meaning. And so an evil could only be gratuitous if we already tacitly assume that life is meaningless.

      And so in the context of the cartoon, we are supposed to say both that the child’s suffering is an evil and his life is meaningless. On the one hand, the evil ought not to be and on the other hand it would be no more or less meaningful if the evil kept on being.

  4. John said,

    October 12, 2011 at 7:56 am

    “The answer is that the atheist is appealing to gratuitous evil – a privation that is defined as so extreme or so peculiar that it cannot be a part of a meaningful life.”

    What of the gratuitous good? A good “could only be gratuitous if we already tacitly assume that life is meaningless”.

    • October 12, 2011 at 8:41 am

      We can wait to deal with that problem until someone actually asserts there are such things.

  5. Martin T said,

    October 12, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    If life is meaningless can there be such a thing as evil?

  6. John said,

    October 13, 2011 at 5:01 am

    Martin: “If life is meaningless can there be such a thing as evil?”

    Or such a thing as good. Unless meaning is good in which case evil is meaninglessness and there can be such a thing as evil.

  7. PatrickH said,

    October 14, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Is this cartoon even an argument at all? A Christian critique of frivolous gratitude to Jesus could be made just as “powerful”: panel one the car keys, panel two the touchdown, panel three the Isenheim Altarpiece. This stuff is pretty easy to do, what with Photoshop and all.

    Just the other day, I was irritated by a Facebook post of an image of Benedict on a throne in resplendent robes juxtaposed with the quote from Jesus challenging the young man to give up his riches and follow him. I suppose in the same spirit, I could have “answered” the FB post with an image of Buchenwald inmates staring through the barbed wire at their American liberators paired with the atheist bus slogan: “There probably is no God, so relax and enjoy your life.”

    None of this stuff rises to the level of argument. It’s advertising, i.e. modern rhetoric. I don’t think the triptych presents an AFE, repugnant or otherwise, because it doesn’t present an A at all.

    • October 14, 2011 at 8:23 am

      The argument here threatens to turn into a dispute about words. The triptych isn’t formally presented as a series of premises, but there is something inclining the mind to one side of a contradiction that can be formalized. Rhetoric has a rational appeal that can be drawn out, and which frequently manifests its absurdity when drawn out (the Mastercard “priceless” comes to mind, though any ad campaign would work.)

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