Plantinga and Problem of Horrendous Evils (2)


In fact, Plantinga’s logical solution of evil reinforces addressing the problem of the evidential evil by pushing the problem of evil to realm of what God can actualize. However, since Plantinga’s solution does not account for horrendous evils, I think it is necessary to test his logical solution in the face of horrendous evils.

However, one may ask how much and what types of evils may diminish the value of free will? Does the value of free will always outweigh regardless the potency and intensity of evil? I think there are some evils that diminish the value of free will. In the next section, I give my reasons why I do think free will is not value that can justifies the existence of evil always.

Does Elvin Plantinga’s solution solve the Problem of Evil?

            Plantinga’s solution to the problem of evil explains away some of the evils, but leaves horrendous evils out. In fact, his solution is insensitive to the distinction of non-horrendous and horrendous evils. He does not distinguish between these types of evils, or he does not think that this distinction impacts his solution. However, in my opinion since his solution relies on the contention of God’s goodness, it cannot be indifferent to the problem of horrendous evils, since it is a threat to the goodness of God. First about the distinction between horrendous and non-horrendous:

After all, not all evils created equal. In my morning jogging, I might step on broken glasses that negligent drunkards throw on the sidewalk last night. That is an evil that I would suffer. However, although I will suffer from a bleeding wound, this might not cause me to question the value of my life and makes me to think that I would prefer never have existed rather than facing this suffering. I might not even come to conclusion that if those drunken people had no free will, the world would be a better place. In fact, it is possible that those drunken people have used their free will for good purposes too and their right doings exceeds their wrongdoings. In this situation, no matter how much I suffer from my wound, I can agree with Plantinga that it worth it that God gave us free will even though one of the byproducts of it was irresponsible drunk people behavior to throw their bottles on the sidewalk.

On the other hand, horrendous evils rob the meaning and worth of someone’s life, either from the life of those who suffer from horrendous evils or of those who cause them to others. Horrendous evils are defined, Adams explains, “as evils the participation in (in the doing or suffering of) which gives one reason prima facie to doubt whether one’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to one on the whole… Nevertheless, that very horrendous proportion, by which they threaten to rob a person’s life of positive meaning, cries out not only to be engulfed, but to made meaningful through positive and decisive defeat.”[4] Horrendous evils, as Adams definition suggests, “doubt the positive meaning of their lives.” For instance, if a child witnesses the massacre of their parents and this tragedy impacts its brain development irreversibly that influences his entire life and people close to him is an example of horrendous evil. Or if people starve to death and only possible way for them to survive is cannibalism can be another instance of horrendous evil. These instances of calamities that have not been isolated instances in human experiences, are intrinsically bad and regardless of the contexts that created them or the possible of good results that they might produce are bad in themselves. Therefore, contrary to what Adams maintains, the reasons that they give for losing life of its value and meaning is objective and not prima facie. Hence, an utilitarian view of evil cannot justify them, since it fails to see the potency and intensity of horrendous evils.

Some theologians have argued in favor of the merit of suffering for spiritual growth and character building so that in the end of suffering, the person will eventually appreciate the goodness of suffering. However, as the definition of horrendous evil entails, since it casts doubt on the value of life, the value of free will or hope and faith in a benevolent or omnipotent God diminishes too. Needless to say that faith and hope in a benevolent and omnipotent God are necessary for a person’s spiritual growth.

The worst thing that can happen to a person is that because of experiencing horrendous evils, he thinks that his life has lost its value and he preferred he never has born. He, also, has not only lost his hope and faith in goodness of God, but perhaps he no longer trust in that God. On the other hand, because of his mistrust in goodness of God, he fears the wrath of a vengeful God against himself as a nonbeliever. It is the worse situation to be in, suffering from the trauma of horrendous evils and at the same time fearing God’s revenge for lack of faith that seems impossible to gain. “For God cannot be said to be good or loving to any created persons the positive meaning of whose lives He allows to be engulfed in and/or defeated by evils—that is, individuals within whose lives horrendous evils remains undefeated” (Aadms). However, how the goodness of God is compatible with this sort of sufferings?

What horrendous evils imply is the lack of a natural justice in world in which devoid of a global force to overbalance of evil by good.[5] Here it is important to make a conceptual distinction between two meanings of natural justice in the world. The first meaning is that the world is such that there is no mechanism to prevent horrendous evils happening against innocent people. The second meaning of the lack of natural justice is that there is no mechanism to overbalance of evil by the good or punishing the evil for their wrongdoing. The first meaning of the lack of natural justice means that Plantinga’s notion of God “as a producer of global good” is questionable and the second notion of the lack of natural justice in the world questions the validity of the contention of the goodness of God.

Why do horrendous evils diminish the value of free will?

Horrendous evils by definition not only rob the victim’s meaning of life, it also diminishes the value of free will. Hence, the fact that free will is the greatest good for humanity is questionable. In fact, in the face of horrendous evil, free will loses its values. Plantinga’s free will defense grounded on the greatest good that free will produces and God could not deprive human being from this greatest good. However, in the face of horrendous evil, free will undercuts its own merits as the greatest good, since a greatest good cannot cause horrendous evils. Free will can be defended as a conditional good, like power or wealth that can benefit some and corrupt the rest. So it is tempting to ask that, could God bestow some people free will, but deprive others form it due to its potential dangers? At least, logically it is conceivable to think about an alternative world in which some people had free will and the other did not.

Plantinga maintains that if God had good moral reasons, he might allow evil in the world. God in his account is a producer of global good who has distributed free will evenly to the whole human beings, and the evils that have occurred and will occur are investable byproduct of this global good. However, horrendous evils are exactly those evils for which we cannot give a good moral reason. In other words, those are evils that outweigh the value of freewill. One may grant Plantinga’s view that free will is one of the greatest goods. The problem of evil is deeper than existence of some evils that are byproduct of a global good. The problem of evil is that we live in a world that contains horrendous evil. Natural justice is not constitutive of the world. By this I do not mean that if there were a natural retributive justice to punish the evil and prevailing good. Even in this case, the suffering that the innocent people went through can compensate for the horrendous evil that they went through. By the lack of a natural justice in the world, I mean that the world is such that horrendous people happen to good innocent people, and there is not mechanism to prevent that.

Plantinga’s response to horrendous evil is that because of our inherently limited rational capacity, we cannot understand God reason. Even this acknowledgement in our human understanding is praiseworthy, but this acknowledgement of ignorance of God’s reasons cannot be used as a reason for the goodness of God. These divine inaccessible reasons for allowing horrendous evils can be possibly good or bad; we do not know. And since the existence of horrendous evils cast doubts on God’s goodness, we know that those inaccessible reasons neither can be used to confirm the goodness of God nor can be use to falsify His goodness. It can be for no reason at all except the fact that He has an extraordinary power and He is such exceptional being who is allowed to treat all creatures whimsically. Or it can be for good reasons. However, using this intrinsic ignorance as a reason for God’s goodness is a circular reasoning, since in the face of horrendous evils, God’s goodness is questionable.[6] The fact that our humanly perspective sees the horrendous evils incomprehensible is sufficient to cast doubt on the value of free will, and it does not require a godly perspective to see its possible merits.

I did not find Adams’s suggestion to the problem of horrendous evil satisfactory. On this she maintains, “It is enough to show how God can be good enough to created person despite their participation in horrors—by defeating them within the context of the individual’s life and by giving that individual a life that is a great good to him/her on the whole”. This suggestion is unsatisfactory because it ignores what horrendous evils entail. If, as Adams admits, horrendous evils robs someone’s live of its values and make him to think that he would wish he would never was born, then because of this belief, he is not justified to think that God by giving “a life that is a great good to him/her on the whole,” he is better off now because as a result of suffering from horrendous evil, the victims already have formed a belief, perhaps justifiably, that their lives have lost its values. Therefore, they cannot be grateful for such a meaningless life. However, if we think that this belief-formation is valid and legitimate, then we must acknowledge the validity of their beliefs.                   



Even we grant Plantinga that it is a logical impossibility for God to give people freedom of will without granting them the capacity to do evil, the problem for a theist is the avoidable evils.[7] It is within God’s power to prevent these contingencies. God’s foreknowledge coupled with his creating power can prevent contingent evils. Furthermore, Plantinga’s logical solution makes considering horrendous evils investable while his solution does not takes the problem of horrendous evils into account. In fact, Plantinga’s generic solution is silent about how the goodness of God can survive in the face of horrendous evils.

The problem of horrendous evils challenges Plantinga’s solution on two levels. The first is his contention about the goodness of God and the second the value of free will. For this reason, his solution cannot be indifferent to horrendous evils, since they cast doubt on the value of free will as the greatest good. Plantinga argues that free will is so vital for our moral character that it justifies the existence of evil. However, horrendous evils cast doubts on the value of free will. Plantinga’s solution attempts to rescue God’s responsibility from all sorts of evils, while it does not explains away the problem of horrendous evil and its threat to the goodness of God. That is why I think his global approach is ineffective to address the problem of horrendous evil.



[1] Plantinga has Mackie in mind here who believed that it is impossible for (1) and (2) both to be true. Mackie’s thesis is known as the logical problem of evil. To Mackie, (P) a perfectly good God always would eliminate evils as much as he could and (Q) there is no limit to what an omnipotent God can do. Unlike Plantinga, Mackie believes that (P) and (Q) are both necessary. To Plantinga, a perfectly good God can sometimes permit evil if it is morally justifiable, like in the case of free will, and there is, in fact, a limit to what God could or could not do. Therefore, Plantinga maintains, there is no inconsistency between (1) and (2).


[2] Plantinga’s view of God is a caring Being that cares about human sufferings. He even suffers when we suffer. In his autobiographical essay, “Self-Profile,” he states, “The chief difference between Christianity and the other theistic religions lies just here: the God of Christianity is willing to enter into and share the sufferings of his creatures, in order to redeem them and his world. Of course this doesn’t answer the question why does God permit evil? But it helps the Christian trust God as a loving father, no matter what ills befall him. Otherwise it would be easy to see God as remote and detached, permitting all these evils, himself untouched, in order to achieve ends that are no doubt exalted but have little to do with us, and little power to assuage our griefs. It would be easy to see him as cold and unfeeling – or if loving, then such that his love for us has little to do with our perception of our own welfare. But God, as Christians see him, is neither remote nor detached. His aims and goals may be beyond our ken and may require our suffering; but he is himself prepared to accept greater suffering in the pursuit of those ends” (36).

[3] The example of Hitler is not an isolated case or an evidence of particular evil; it is in fact a paradigmatic evil.


[4] Despite what Adams thinks, I do not think that the reason that horrendous evils give are Prime facie. In fact, those reasons can be objective or legitimate.

[5] In the eve of modern world, this worldview had extensive consequences in moral and political thought. For instance, Machiavelli’s main concern is that how one must live his live while there is no natural justice. In a world that good people will suffer and evil individuals will live happily. His solution was creating a political environment in which predators by fighting each other would cancel each other’s destructive ambitions.

[6] Adams acknowledges that we possibly cannot know about those divine inaccessible reasons, but at the same time it does not prevent her to use this as a reassurance for God’s goodness. She compares our ignorance of God’s reason to a two-year-old heart patient who does not know why his mom agrees to surgery. She states, “Nevertheless, if there are variety of ignorance, there are also varieties of reassurance. The two-year-old heart patient is convinced of its mother’s love, not by her intimate care and presence through its painful experience. The story of Job suggests something similar is true with human participation in horrendous suffering: God does not give Job His reasons-why, and implies that Job isn’t smart enough to grasp them; rather Job is lectured on the extent of Divine power, and sees God’s goodness face to face! Likewise, I suggest, to exhibit the logical compossibility of both dimensions of Divine goodness with horrendous suffering, it is not necessary to find logically possible reasons why God might permit them” (Adams).

[7] It is also when we assume that free will is a desirable value under all circumstances. Due to the vast amount of evil that occurs in the world, it is doubtful that free will can justify this vastness of evil. As Rowe states, “Someone might hold, for example, that no good is great enough to justify permitting an innocent child to suffer terribly. Again, someone might hold that the mere fact that a given good outweights some suffering and would be lost if the suffering were prevented, is not a morally sufficient reason for permitting the suffering” (“The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism 3”).

Works Cited

Adams, Marilyn McCord. “Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God.” Aristotelian Society. Vol. 63. 1989. pp.297-310.

Hasker, William. “Providence and Evil: Three Theories.” Religious Studies, Vol. 28, No.1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 91-105. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. God, Freedom, and Evil. New York: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2002. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Self-Profile.” In Profiles. Edited by James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company. 1985. Print.

Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1974. Print.

Rowe, William L. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” In The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1996. Print.

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