Book Reviews, philosophy, Theodicy

Book Review: “Providence and the Problem of Evil” by Richard Swinburne

“In order rationally to believe that there is a God, despite [evil], we need either strong positive evidence for the existence of God, or a record of discovering with respect to many apparent bad states that a theodicy works with respect to them, or a theodicy for each kind of bad state which seems to count against the existence of God.”[1]

The problem of evil is considered by many to be the greatest challenge to theism.[2] Richard Swinburne offers a defense against this problem in his work Providence and the Problem of Evil.[3]

Swinburne first develops an account of goods within creation. His account includes beauty, actions, thoughts and feelings as various goods. Given the existence of God, he also argues that worship is a great good.[4] Human freedom is necessary for many goods. With freedom, humans can bring about all types of great goods.[5] The freedom of persons also allows for great evils. These goods are not just goods for people, but they are states which God would be expected to desire to bring about.[6] By developing this account, he is able to turn towards various types of evils.

First, there are moral evils. Moral evils are essentially those bad states of affairs which persons bring about. Swinburne argues that some moral evil is going to be necessary, because it is simply a fact that there are good states of affairs which are logically incompatible.[7] Second, there is natural evil—evils which occur without direct causation by persons.

These sections of the book are largely made up of background, yet Swinburne interweaves his theodicy into the chapters on evil. Central to Swinburne’s account is the idea that for every evil, there is some reason that it occurred. There is, in other words, no evil which is superfluous, no evil which is gratuitous. For every evil mentioned, Swinburne provides a possible reason for God’s allowing it to occur. What reasons could God have for allowing evils like the holocaust, or animal pain? Swinburne sums up his view concisely as follows:

“Every moral evil in the world is such that God allowing it to occur makes possible… the great good of a particular choice between good and bad… Every pain makes possible a courageous response… and normally the goods of compassion and sympathetic action… And all animal pain gives knowledge and opportunity for compassion to animals and humans if they know of it.”[8]

Swinburne’s view is that for every evil, there is a reason. The reason can be knowledge: when people (or animals) observe animals dying in forest fires, they learn to flee from the fires, and thus save themselves and others.[9] Choice is a great good, but in having choices, people can choose to bring about great evils. Horrendous evils like the Holocaust are not just the result of choices in the present, but are the consequences of a long series of evil choices.[10]

Importantly, Swinburne also argues that God is under no obligation to make everyone’s life equally good. “[I]f [God] gives to some ten good things, and to others twenty good things, no one is wronged; nor has he failed to be perfectly good. He has been generous, and, more so, he has made it possible for us to be generous.”[11] God’s providence is good to everyone. There is a level of inequality in the gifts received—but to any and all, gifts are given. The way people choose to use their gifts is what leads to extreme inequities.

Finally, Swinburne argues that God has the right to allow evil, largely due to the extreme dependence people have upon him.[12] Not only that, but God has brought about a world in which every person has the possibility of the nearly infinite good of being with God forever. Thus, Swinburne concludes that God has provided people with a choice between the good and rejection of the good. The responsibility for that action is upon the person, not God.[13]

Throughout Swinburne’s account are several theses many readers may find implausible. He rejects original guilt [he does not deny that there was an original sin and instead holds to an Eastern Orthodox view–thanks to a reader of the original review (linked below) for this point][14] and denies that God knows the future free actions of creatures.[15] These theological points do not undermine his main theses, however. It is undeniable that Swinburne has provided a lucid account of a “greater good theodicy.” He does provide possible reasons for allowing any type of evil to occur.

The key point of divergence with readers will be whether they are willing to accept these reasons in conjunction with his later conclusions. God has reasons for allowing every evil, and he provides for people to have extraordinarily good lives with the afterlife, but there remain those who will reject these goods. Swinburne’s account is cumulative: the reasons provided for allowing evils do not stand on their own. Rather, they stand together and in unison with God’s providence and direct goodness to all persons through maintaining the world, creating them, and providing them with choices.

Those interested in the problem of evil would do well to read Providence and the Problem of Evil.  Usage of the “greater good theodicy” is on the wane. Many theists today only provide versions of the “free will defense” in relation to the problem of evil. In doing so, they cast aside a powerful philosophical tool for theism. While the “greater good theodicy” will not convince everyone, it can at least provide a strong cumulative case when joined with other defenses against the problem of evil.

[1] Richard Swinburne, Providence and the Problem of Evil (New York, NY: Oxford, 1998), 29.

[2] See Swinburne’s thoughts on this on pages 4ff.

[3] He also believes that we have strong positive evidence for the existence of God, but he focuses upon theodicy in this work. See his The Existence of God for a case for the existence of God based on positive evidence.

[4] 111ff.

[5] 105-107.

[6] 45.

[7] 125.

[8] 217.

[9] 176ff.

[10] 151-152.

[11] 149.

[12] 223ff.

[13] 251.

[14] 36-41.

[15] 127ff.

This review was originally posted at Apologetics315 here:



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: “Providence and the Problem of Evil” by Richard Swinburne

  1. This sounds like a good start for Swinburne, akin to Leibniz’s Optimism. Unfortunately, Swinburne continues to invoke libertarian notions of free will at the cost of sovereignty (at least Swinburne has the courage — or foolhardiness? — to reject sovereignty, realizing it incompatible with libertarian freedom; Leibniz simply left the contradiction unresolved, and Bertrand Russel called him out on that).

    Optimism *is* the solution; “free will defenses,” like Plantinga’s, are incoherent and unscriptural. But there’s no need to preserve unscriptural libertarian freedom alongside Optimism. Swinburne’s next development should be to reject libertarian freedom and accept sovereignty. Sovereignty is the Scriptural doctrine, and it plays much more nicely with Optimism.

    Posted by Stan | November 17, 2011, 1:36 PM
    • Thanks for the comment, Stan! I will say I definitely disagree about sovereignty and libertarian freedom. I believe they are perfectly compatible. What is incompatible is theological determinism (which I suspect is what you mean by “sovereignty”) and libertarian freedom. But I don’t see any reason to accept theological determinism, so the dilemma doesn’t do much for me.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | November 17, 2011, 2:14 PM


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