In his 2003 Gifford Lectures, Peter van Inwagen argues that the problem of evil—i.e. an argument proceeding from the existence of evil to the non-existence of God—is a failure. On Van Inwagen’s view, however, there are very few, if any, arguments for significant philosophical theses which evade a diagnosis of failure, and so, his conclusion is somewhat unsurprising (cf. Lecture 3).
Van Inwagen advances his argument by identifying two primary lacunae of the famed free will defense (FWD) as originally developed by the Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga. First, Plantinga’s FWD suffers from its inapplicability to “local arguments from evil,” that is, arguments which “appeal to particular evils” (pp. 8-9). Second, Plantinga’s FWD, insofar as it involves speculative discussion of creaturely essences and transworld depravity constitutes, it seems, a mere epistemic possibility; that is, it’s true for all we know, but by no means very plausible. This need for plausibility or the construction of “a very real possibility” that might constitute a better version of the FWD characterizes the final desideratum of van Inwagen’s project (p. 66).
We shall take up these desiderata in reverse order. To develop a more plausible FWD, Van Inwagen suggests that the following descriptions ought to be satisfied by his FWD: (i) Libertarian freedom exists and is necessary for genuine love, (ii) there is an evolutionarily adequate account of the Fall, (iii) horrors teach us what it means to be separated from God, (iv) all suffering for those who love God will eventually be redeemed & (v) there is no minimum justifiable amount of suffering consequent on the fall of humanity (pp. 83-94). Van Inwagen then presents a story that satisfies (i)-(v) in such a way as to respond adequately to the global argument from evil.
However, more must be said, thinks Van Inwagen, to defeat local arguments from evil, and what Van Inwagen proposes is fascinating. He suggests, by expanding upon (iii) and (v) from above, that for any given particular horrendous evil, E, it is possible, for all we know, that E is in fact gratuitous. However, Van Inwagen argues that the existence of gratuitous evil is consistent with the existence of God as follows. It is reasonable to think that horrendous evils teach us what it means to be separated from God, and furthermore, that there is no non-vague minimum number of such horrors sufficient for such a didactic end. But just as arbitrariness in the lengths of criminal sentences can be morally justified in the setting of a court system, so too might God’s arbitrariness in choosing to permit some clearly sufficient number of horrors for the sake of knowing what life without God would be like be morally justified (p. 102). And so, the question, “Why did God permit this evil?” is met with the reply that there simply is no reason for that evil. But that need not count against God’s moral perfection, or indeed, love.