Good Gods, Bad Gods, & The Problem of Evil An exploration of a famous theological argument examined through the good-god vs. evil-god dichotomous thought experiment

The argument from the existence of evil as evidence that God does not exist is one that frequently appears in theology. The basic premise of this argument is that the fact that there is so much evil in the world ought to count as evidence against the existence of God. Law puts forth a rather unconventional form of this argument that presents the evil-god hypothesis along with the problem of good as a challenge to the traditional theistic good-god argument that aims to resolve the problem of evil. This is an analogous argument that contrasts with the classical argument that merely presents the problem of evil which is exemplified with Rowe’s discussion of the problem of evil. Law’s argument is a good one because it uses a new perspective from which to attack the good-god hypothesis, since it is one that accounts for possible responses well, and due to the fact that it is an argument that has a complex structure and therefore requires numerous counterarguments and examples in order to be effectively challenged.

The basic structure of Law’s argument begins with presenting the evil-god challenge as a symmetrical premise to the good-god claim posited by traditional theologians. Whereas traditional theologists aim to resolve the problem of evil and prove that this is not something that is a serious challenge to the existence of an all-powerful wholly good God, Law’s argument aims to resolve the problem of good and prove that this is not something that challenges the existence of an all-powerful wholly evil God.

Law begins by dividing the problem of evil into two types: namely, the logical problem and the evidential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil consists of trying to resolve the fact that “there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally good god,” (Law, p. 354) with the fact that evil exists. The evidential problem, on the other hand, presents the fact that there is a great amount of evil in the world which is seemingly inconsistent with the fact that the world is created and controlled by a good God. Law also provides some theodicies that attempt to show that neither the evidential nor the logical problem of evil is a significant challenge to the good God theory.

Next, Law presents the evil-god hypothesis that supposes that the universe does indeed have a creator that is omnipotent and omniscient, just as traditional Christian theology does, but crucially goes on to posit that this creator is not good, but rather evil. This hypothesis is also countered by Law by a variety of theodicies that are analogous to the traditional ones but which are reversed to support the evil-god hypothesis. The point that Law is attempting to make is that the theodicies that are traditionally used to support the good-god hypothesis can be reversed to support the evil-god hypothesis nearly as effectively. Yet despite this being the case, the evil-god hypothesis is typically dismissed as ludicrous prima facie. To this fact, Law states that “if the reverse theodicies are feeble and ineffective, why should we consider the standard theodicies any more effective?” (Law, p. 359) In other words, if the idea of an evil God is preposterous but the arguments in support of this conception are analogous to the arguments supporting the idea of a good God, then there is a disconnect. This leads Law to formulate the central thesis of his work which he calls the symmetry thesis. Basically, this thesis states that there is an approximate symmetry between the good-god and evil-god hypotheses and therefore traditional theologists need to demonstrate that the evil-god hypothesis is indeed significantly more implausible than the good-god hypothesis in order to prove that the good-god hypothesis is indeed tenable.

Finally, Law moves to various other arguments that are frequently used by Christian theologians to support the good-god hypothesis. These include the proof of miracles, historical evidence, moral arguments, laws-of-nature and after-life theodicies, as well as the semantic theodicy. His point in this is that for nearly all of these traditional arguments supporting the good-god hypothesis, there are reverse theodicies that would support the evil-god hypothesis as effectively, or in some cases, even more effectively, as the good-god hypothesis. Therefore, Law concludes that there are only minor differences in plausibility between the two hypotheses, thereby demonstrating that the asymmetry hypothesis indeed holds. This shows that both the good-god and evil-god hypotheses are about equally plausible. His conclusion is therefore that unless the symmetry thesis can be proven conclusively to be false, the evil-god challenge is unmet, and therefore presents a serious difficulty for those supporting the good-god hypothesis. Law does state that it is possible that this challenge could be met in the future, but he claims that he does not see how this would be possible. Due to this, Law states that “the suggestion that this being is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally good seems to me hardly more reasonable than the suggestion that he is omnipotent, omniscient, and maximally evil.” (Law, p. 373)

As stated previously, Law’s approach to countering the good-god hypothesis is an unconventional one. Typically, this hypothesis is challenged through the invocation of the problem of evil. In other words, the idea of an all-powerful, omniscient, and omnipotent God is severely undermined by the existence of evil in the world. Rowe uses this approach and similarly to Law’s symmetry thesis, he too analyzes whether the hypothesis of a good-god is tenable. The difference is that Rowe compares the probability of the existence of a good God with the possibility that there is no God at all, rather than comparing the probability of good-God’s existence with the probability of the existence of an evil God as Law does.

Rowe presents his argument as composed of two premises – first, that “there exist horrendous evils that an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good being would have no justifying reason to permit” (Rowe, p. 184) and secondly that such a being would not permit any evil without having justifying reasons for doing so. The conclusion that Rowe claims follows from this is roughly that God does not exist. This argument has a resemblance to Law’s logical problem of evil. Like Law, Rowe also presents some counterarguments to his hypothesis. It is important to note that Rowe’s argument is probabilistic – and is not one that attempts to prove God’s nonexistence. This is again similar to Law in that both works analyze the probabilities of hypotheses rather than attempt to prove a specific hypothesis true.

Both Law and Rowe refer to the free will theodicy which is the idea that aims to “explain all the evils in the world as due either directly to evil acts of human free will or to divine punishment for evil acts of human free will.” (Rowe, p. 191) The point of this theodicy is that the fact that humans have free will is such a good thing that it can more than compensate for all of the evil that results from humans practicing their free will. Whereas Law meets the challenge of this theodicy by creating a reverse theodicy that shows that human free will, though sometimes used for good, creates more evil than good, therefore supporting his evil-god hypothesis, Rowe, in contrast, uses the evidence of natural disasters to claim that the suffering inflicted by such events is disproportionate to the abuses of free will committed by humans. This is not an entirely convincing statement as Rowe himself admits that there is a great deal of evil in the world, at least some of which is the direct result of humans exercising their free will. Rowe also claims that “no responsible person thinks that the good of human freedom is so great as to require that no steps be taken to prevent some of the more flagrant abuses of free choice that result in massive, undeserved suffering,” (Rowe, p. 192) which is clearly a controversial statement. Indeed, it is the position of many thinkers that complete non-interventionism is the correct policy in all cases without exception. Moreover, it is entirely plausible that God also takes a similar position that favors the preservation of free will even in light of so-called "flagrant abuses." Afterall, if human free will were to be limited by arbitrary guidelines, it would cease to be genuine free will. If one is genuinely committed to the preservation of the concept of free will, then they would clearly favor not intervening regardless of circumstance. Indeed, if God got involved even just once, His entire free will construction would be entirely violated and permanently destroyed for all eternity. Therefore, Rowe’s argument is less than convincing, whereas Law’s reverse theodicy is far more effective.

In general, Law is successful in his argument as rather than using a frequently-repeated negative hypothesis, he utilizes a fresh structure that is more effective at challenging the good-God hypothesis. His use of a positive argument in his proposal of the symmetry hypothesis is particularly powerful as readers of his work are forced to approach the traditional good-god hypothesis from a new perspective, rather than meet the challenge of the problem of evil as they had already done repeatedly in the past. The fact that Law’s essay is unlike Rowe’s discussion of the argument from evil means that it is more effective as a challenge of the traditional theologian position.

Moreover, Law accounts for counterarguments very effectively as he uses his clever method of reverse theodicies to meet the challenges posited by theologians. Indeed, this is an impressively potent strategy, particularly exemplified by his response to the evidence of miracles and religious experiences.

Furthermore, it is also the case that Law’s symmetry hypothesis is a highly versatile and adaptable strategy that due to the way that it is structured includes many different cases and examples, each of which needs to be disproven in order to disprove Law’s central hypothesis. Contrary to Rowe, Law’s argument is not constrained to just one linear structure which is susceptible to just a single counter-argument. Instead, in order to effectively defeat Law’s hypothesis and therefore support the good-god hypothesis, one needs to repeatedly demonstrate that the symmetry hypothesis is incorrect. In other words, whereas Rowe’s hypothesis can be defeated by just one effective challenge, a theologian would need to repeatedly challenge and disprove the symmetry hypothesis in a variety of cases that Law presents.

An oft-cited argument against the existence of God is known as the argument from the existence of evil that cites the presence of vast amounts of evil in the world as evidence for the nonexistence of God. This argument form is exemplified by Rowe in his analysis of the problem of evil. Law, on the other hand, puts forth a different argument against the existence of God wherein he creates a symmetry hypothesis between the good-God hypothesis of traditional theology and his proposal of the evil-God hypothesis. To build on this, he posits the problem of good to mirror the problem of evil. Essentially, Law aims to show with his argument that the same issues that make the evil-god hypothesis unlikely and extensively challenged are present within the traditional good-god hypothesis as presented by traditional theologians. Law is effective in his argumentation due to his use of a fresh perspective for his argument, the fact that he effectively accounts for possible responses to his argument, and because he has created an argument that is structured in such a manner that it needs to be countered by means of many arguments and examples in order to be challenged effectively.


i Law, S. (2010). The evil-god challenge. Religious Studies, 46(3), 353–373.

ii Rowe, W. L. (2004). Evil Is Evidence against Theistic Belief. In M. L. Peterson & R. J. VanArragon (Eds.), Contemporary Debates in the Philosophy of Religion. Blackwell Publishing.

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