One of the most popular responses to the problem of evil from believers has been to argue that we are not in a position to be able to judge the rightness or wrongness of events that we observe because for all we know, somewhere down the line what appears to be a case of pointless evil today will in fact play an indispensible role in a greater good that justifies it. So ironically, the believer here presses for agnosticism about whether or not instances of horrible suffering and death that have every appearance of being utterly pointless or not worth any good that we would accept. We just can’t know, they argue, whether or not the case will turn out to be pointless, so we must suspend judgment about whether or not it actually is gratuitous evil. And therefore, God cannot be faulted.
This agnosticism is coupled, not surprisingly, with a confidence derived from other sources—faith, revelation, the sensus divinitatus, the cosmological argument—that there is indeed an omnipotent, all knowing, and all good God. So even though those cases of suffering appear to be evil, and even though we should be agnostic about them, we can be confident that in fact every case of suffering in all the history of sentience on this planet will work out as a necessary part of God’s plan and are for the better. This shift of the burden of proof for God puts a tremendous amount of pressure on those other sources of information about God to be correct, of course. And none of them prove to be up to the task.
One point that deserves comment here is that no morally decent person would ever accept these kind of logical gymnastics as a defense of any other sort of morally evil act by a person.
Imagine if a serial killer, or a war time rapist, or a prolific pedophile offered up a similar kind of defense: “Your honor, and ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I know that it appears that what I did was truly pointless and evil. But consider if you will that we do not know whether or not what I did will in fact turn out for the worse. For all we know, my actions may have actually done my victims, or their families, or humanity in general a great service that far outweighs the suffering created by my actions.”
A man named Ottis Toole is suspected of being the killer of Adam Walsh. After Adam was abducted from a Sears store and killed, his father John Walsh, who was leading an relatively unremarkable life until then, was motivated to become one of the most influential and effective anti-crime activists in American history. His program “America’s Most Wanted,” and legislation that he was instrumental in helping to pass have been responsible for putting tens of thousands of criminals in jail. Although Ottis Toole was suspected of being the culprit, he was never charged. But suppose that he had been, and suppose that he offered the “For a Greater Good” defense. Suppose he had argued that he shouldn’t be condemned for murdering (by decapitation) that little boy because of all the good that it created.
What should be obvious is that morally decent people would never accept either the agnosticism defense, nor the greater good defense, in real world cases.
But what is stunning is that ordinary people with normal, appropriate moral reactions to real cases of moral evil like the Adam Walsh case will suddenly abandon all sense of moral decency when the question comes to God. They will accept any justification, no matter how tenuous, as long as it gives them some slender thread of an excuse to absolve God of responsibility for things that they would never let anyone else get away with.