Trent Horn is wrong to say evil is merely the absence of good

In Episode #7597, “Answering Objections to the Christian Faith”, in his explanation of evil Trent repeats the assertion that evil does not exist per se, but is rather the lack of some good. (Listen to 1:18~4:00.)

Trent begins around 1:55:

If God is good, why is there evil? … I think there’s a lot of steps we have to go through to answer satisfactorily. One step, we have to … define evil. Evil is not a thing that God made. God doesn’t make evil. Evil is an absence of good. It’s a parasite or a corruption of the good. For example, rust doesn’t exist on its own. You can’t have rust apart from metal. You have to have metal to be corrupted to have rust. You can’t have 100% evil with no good. Evil is good that is corrupted in a certain way. It’s a lack of good.

This assertion is easily disproven. We may proceed via proof by contradiction: Disease and wildfires are two proofs. Illness caused by viruses is not a matter of the body “losing” health, but rather the body has gained foreign matter, viruses, that it is actively trying to destroy and expel.

We could also mention cancer, which can be caused by viruses: Cancer is not merely the lack of proper order within the body: It is the actual presence of a very large number of cells that have grown such that they are depriving other organs of nutrients and pushing against them preventing proper function, hence killing the animal. To put it simply, “Tumors exist. Therefore the premise that evil is a lack of good is false.”

Wildfires are not the absence of whatever you might expect a normal forest to contain, but are rather the presence of heat and an ongoing chemical reaction converting what you expect into ash and more heat.

Catholic Answers cannot expect us to blindly assume antiquated premises with them to effectively beg the question of God’s existence. If Trent Horn wants to argue that evil is merely a lack of good, he must show this premise to be true, not assume it, and he must refute all the positive evidence like this that we have obtained through science showing it to be false.

Incidentally, this points to a fatal problem with his book Answering Atheism: He does not address any serious objections to his arguments, instead only repeating the classic arguments and refuting trivial objections.

(As another example, war is not an absence of good social relations: It is the presence of tanks, bullets, bombs, and people pulling the trigger.)

Can you vindicate Trent’s argument?

I actually wrote all that responding to the bold, not having heard Trent’s full answer. Listening to it now – I typed it out above while listening, his answer is actually even worse than I thought, because he shifted mid-step to a different argument. Instead of saying evil doesn’t exist, he decided not to comment on whether evil positively exists, saying instead it’s “a corruption of a good”, a more nebulous claim. He could still mean that evil doesn’t exist, or he could mean that evil exists but coexists with a good that it is actively perverting to remain existing. He appears to mean the former, though, because he ends by repeating the claim I’m responding to here, “Evil is a lack of good”.

He then argues that God can bring about greater good, making the entire question of whether evil is a lack of good irrelevant, so he might as well not have even said it …

From what he’s said, I can see what he means, like how a wildfire is “energy (heat) run amok”, likewise cancer is body tissue (good) misbehaving (again running amok) … I don’t see that this observation furthers any point, however. If anything, it appears to undermine God’s sovereignty instead of His wisdom (theodicy being an attempt to vindicate God’s wisdom by explaining evil).

Is there a reason you just ramble without actually saying anything important?


Bahman…has been resurrected!

Quick, fetch me the holy water! :eek::eek::eek:

I do feel for this individual, I really do. But at the same time, posts on here, over and over again, on here ramblin’, gets questions answered all the time, and then promptly ignores them by using only what I can describe as circular logic and Hindu metaphysics.

Agreed. Beyond a certain point, further discussion or argument feels futile. So I just pray - and laugh. :wink:

ahhh, the internet…

Here a person posts a thread, expresses an opinion, and closes with a question…and instead of the question being answered, two others pile on with rather uncharitable barbs instead.

Why do we do this to each other?:shrug:

I think you’re referring to positive evils, like an evil inflicted on another, rather than taking something good from another (such as hitting someone, or calling them bad names, ect.)

By evil, it is contrary to the law of God (hitting someone unjustly, for example). So it can still be a positive evil, but still ungodly, because it is contrary to the law of God. Therefore, it would be a lack of Godliness.

Maybe T Horn brought up God making something good out of evil to show atheists and agnostics that evil isn’t something that has to take away belief in God. The fact that there is evil (meaning lack of good (of God)) shows that there can be a good (of God). Thus, there is the ultimate goodness (which is God Himself)

Not sure if you’ll be satisfied with this answer, maybe someone else can offer something better

I don’t find your counterargument very compelling. In fact, I think it misses Trent’s point completely and tries to deflect from it by pointing in the wrong direction.

The human body has on it and in it a myriad of foreign bodies such as bacteria, including viruses, all of the time. No one makes the claim that it is the presence of “foreign matter” that is what constitutes evil. It is what some of those foreign bodies do to the body – i.e., make it malfunction or become disordered – that is the evil.

Viruses are not the evil that is being spoken of in the first place. It is the the dis-ease or disordered functioning of the body that is the evil. Viruses are said to be “evil” only by extension in the sense that they caused the evil in the human body they have invaded. The evil is what is happening to the body, not the mere presence of foreign matter.

Your use of cancer as a counter example to Trent’s argument demonstrates that you really have missed the point.

The salient point is where you say “Cancer is not merely the lack of proper order within the body: it is the actual presence of a very large number of cells.” Cancer is, in fact, a malfunction or disorder in the replication of those very cells which make up the tumor. A particular type of cell, say skin cell or white blood cell no longer has the function of controlling its own replication – of determining when to stop and start replication. It reproduces itself in an out of control way. That is the privation – it is deprived of the function which controls replication, which then causes, as you say, “depriving other organs of nutrients and pushing against them preventing proper function.” That would be when the cancer becomes malignant or metastasizes to other parts of the body. The “evil” began, however, in the disorder of the replication process within the cell itself which brought about the detrimental effects to the cell itself and the body as a whole.

Again, you are focusing attention to what a forest fire is (and misidentifying that as the purported “evil” when no one would make that claim.)

A forest is a specific entity. The evil is what the forest fire does to the forest, not what a forest fire is. A forest has many functions – it is home to many animal species, releases the oxygen in CO2 for animals to use, helps stabilize climate, prevents erosion, keeps silt out of streams, rivers and water bodies, a source of future fossil fuels, etc. It is in depriving nature, including animals and human beings, of these benefits that would be the “evil.”

Now, you also have to recall that forestry management theorists do not call forest fires “evil” in any unqualified sense. Forest fires are considered good in the sense that they keep forests healthy over the long term. So fires could only be called bad or “evil” where they were shown not to contribute to forest health in the long term, independent of their impact on human beings.

The distinction between natural evil and moral evil should be noted here. Natural evils are not called “evil” in any unqualified sense because these do not involve willful malice.

I have no idea what you are getting at here. Merely labeling premises as “antiquated” does not prove they are incorrect. And you certainly haven’t given any good reasons for why they ought to be dismissed.

I think you suppose your “positive evidence” is far more compelling than it actually is. His larger point, I would assume, is that it makes no sense to speak of “evil” without reference to the positive functions or features (the goods) which provide context for what makes the evil, evil to begin with.

It seems pretty obvious that you didn’t understand the argument and have – unconsciously perhaps – attempted to misrepresent it by bringing up counter examples that actually deflect attention away from the important understanding.


… From last.

If you aren’t going to actually address those classic arguments by bringing up the “serious objections,” this paragraph just comes across as a rant without much substance.

Well, no, war is not just “the presence of tanks, bullets, bombs, and people pulling the trigger.” All of those can be present even in times of peace. War has specific effects which have to do with timing, intention and effects; all of which relate to depriving one party or other of certain goods. That is the extent to which war is evil.

I don’t think you understand the argument Trent is making.

By the way, it has a long pedigree back to at least Augustine, Boethius, some of the Church Fathers, and Plato before them.

The presence of microbes or viruses in a body does not itself constitute an illness. We all have microorganisms on and under our skin that do not make us sick; in fact they outnumber our human soma cells (but weigh far less).

When they get out of balance, they cause the illness, which is a loss of strength and wellbeing resulting from their action.

Forest fires are not evil in themselves, although they can cause material evils to those in their path. In many areas, especially western NA, fire is part of the forest’s natural regulation: It clears the undergrowth and dead limbs and recharges the topsoil; trees such as redwoods evolve fire resistance. The material evils result from human settlement in large numbers under the forest, and so suffering loss, which was not in the design plan.

If we were wiser, we’d do our lumbering in patterns that would contain the fires and restrain the “evils.”


Why don’t YOU check their other posts instead of making accusations? Clearly you haven’t dealt with this individual.

It’s a pretty simple proposition…if you don’t like what he has to say, or has ever had to say, why do feel compelled to respond to his posts?

Some people like a good debate, I guess. :slight_smile:

Discuss the issue (…or not …) but not each other.

4 posts have been removed.*

To the detractors, I recall what Mama said: “If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all.”

The Catholic Church subsequently expanded it to CCC 2477-2479. :wink:

To the OP, I am reminded of a saying of Elie Wiesel, who died earlier this month:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Evil - When due weight, order, or measure is disrupted or destroyed. It is the lack of these which is bad. If a fire touching our skin made us healthier, we would call the fire good. Therefore, it is not the fire, it is what the fire does in us which is evil.

Modern Catholic Dictionary:

EVIL. The privation of a good that should be present. It is the lack of a good that essentially belongs to a nature; the absence of a good that is natural and due to a being. Evil is therefore the absence of what ought to be there.

Thanks for the clarification. To wrap things up, it seems I was wrong to take Mr. Horn literally. By the consensus of this thread, it seems Mr. Horn was wrong to give rust as an example of evil: According to Peter et al., rust isn’t evil: It’s the inability of the metal to, uh … do whatever it did before it got rust that is evil. It’s the fact that the metal’s now ugly and not-smooth that causes distress, not the rust itself!

Yet checking what Trent literally said, it’s easy for me to get upset all over again, because I don’t see how to reconcile Trent’s argument about rust with what was said here. First checking a dictionary for ‘rust’: a reddish- or yellowish-brown flaky coating of iron oxide

Mr. Horn says that God doesn’t make evil, and he implies that rust is an example of evil. Rust is a coating of iron oxide. Hence Trent is implying that God doesn’t make iron oxide.

He also says that evil is an absence of good: Hence iron oxide is an absence of something – hence the origin of my argument that ‘evils’ were in fact a presence of something, not an absence (in this case, a presence of iron oxide).

So I guess the point we’ve arrived at is that Trent was speaking off-the-cuff on live radio, made a mistake in speaking, and that he didn’t mean for his words to be taken literally. Apparently he meant to use rust corrupting metal as an analogy for evil corrupting good; he did not mean that rust was an example of evil.

Yet looking at what he says, he does seem to be speaking as if rust is an example of evil …

Furthermore, what he says appears self-contradictory; to quote:
[list=1]*]Evil is good that is corrupted in a certain way.
*]It’s a lack of good.[/list]

“good that is corrupted in a certain way” = something that exists
“It’s a lack of good” = something that doesn’t exist (he appears to be reiterating his earlier statement, “Evil is not a thing that God made.”)

So if we take Trent literally here, he is saying that evil exists (it is a corrupted good) and doesn’t exist (it is a lack of being).

So I’m “not quite there” yet: I can understand the conception of Peter Plato et al. that evil is a deprivation, the experience of missing something, but then what does Trent Horn mean in saying that evil “is good that is corrupted”? Doesn’t this mean a corrupted good, i.e. something that actually exists?

(Peter, I mentioned his book as a passing comment to try to save people time and frustration in reading it: To discuss the book itself we’d need a new thread. Of course I understand your position that a passing comment need not be considered without some basis, but I thought I was giving it basis with my OP. I said “He does not address any serious objections …] only …] refuting trivial objections.” Please see the June 23, 2015 2/5-star review for more detail, particularly the fourth paragraph and subsequent comment. If you’d like to discuss this more, please create a new thread or PM me.)


I think a few different things are being conflated here. It is possible that Mr. Horn was imprecise in his statements.

The idea is that evil is like darkness or cold. No one would say that darkness does not exist; we experience it all the time. But it’s not an independent “thing”; you can’t have an anti-flashlight that projects darkness. It’s just what we call a relative absence of light. Likewise, cold is a quite real phenomenon that can bring comfort and refreshment on a hot day – or injure and even kill people in other circumstances. But again, physically cold is a relative lack of the energy we call heat, not and independent, equal-and-opposite force.

So it is with evil, albeit on a spiritual rather than physical level. Every evil begins with a good thing that is somehow warped in a way that diminishes its goodness. Fire and wind and iron oxide aren’t evil – but introduce them in the wrong place or time or quantity, and they can cause great evil by damaging or destroying other good things. Likewise, the desires for food and sex and material resources aren’t evil – they exist to motivate us toward things that we need. But unconstrained by reason and a sense of what it right and appropriate, they can wreak great evil.

The idea is not that evil always involves a physical loss of material rather than an accumulation of something in the wrong place, but that every evil stems from an original good that has lost some of its goodness. That is where the privation comes in, though you may be correct that the language of corruption or parasitism would be better to avoid misunderstandings in cases where the evil is literally too much of a good thing, or the addition of a (normally good or neutral) factor that disrupts a necessary function.

The body has become unhealthy by losing its health. One must first be healthy to become unhealthy. Being healthy is good, being unhealthy is not good. That which is not good is bad. Being unhealthy is the negation of being healthy. Or do you suppose we ought to be unhealthy? :shrug: All disorders arise by chance from what was originally created well-ordered. And for some mysterious reason, God has allowed this freedom in creation. Anyway, foreign matter and viruses are material causal agents, not formal causal agents. They are unhealthy to the body, but not being unhealthy itself. Nor are matter and viruses intrinsically evil in and of themselves. Evil can also be defined as the abuse of something good in and of itself. Self-interest is good, but it no longer is once it encroaches upon the self-interest of something other. Viral ecology as a whole is actually good for our health and serves to sustain life, so virologists tell us.

We could also mention cancer, which can be caused by viruses: Cancer is not merely the lack of proper order within the body: It is the actual presence of a very large number of cells that have grown such that they are depriving other organs of nutrients and pushing against them preventing proper function, hence killing the animal. To put it simply, “Tumours exist. Therefore the premise that evil is a lack of good is false.”

These cells have grown out of proportion and have created tumours because of a lack of proper order in the body by certain accidental conditions. It is because the body is in a disordered state and no longer orderly that cells begin to multiply and create tumours. Again, viruses are not intrinsically evil, but the infections they might produce by being accidentally situated where they don’t belong are not good for the body, but rather bad. And that which is bad is not good, or else it ought to exist by necessity rather than exist accidentally by chance. Everything good exists by necessity, all that is bad exists accidentally by chance. The former is intended by God, the latter is permitted by God for the sake of a greater good. Now you might dismiss the idea of the greater good as a load of hogwash, but take an earthquake as an example. You might regard it as something evil because of the loss of thousands of lives that could result from it. However, earthquakes are produced by the shifting and grinding of tectonic plates beneath the earth’s surface. Without this constant shifting and grinding going on, the radiation from the Sun would obliterate the entire human race.

Wildfires are not the absence of whatever you might expect a normal forest to contain, but are rather the presence of heat and an ongoing chemical reaction converting what you expect into ash and more heat.

Catastrophes do occur, but only because of abnormal conditions. Without normality there can be no abnormality. And certainly, abnormality ought not to exist. What is normal surely hasn’t happened by chance. We must first brew our daily morning cup of coffee before we might happen to accidentally spill it all over the kitchen table. All that you see as evil is nothing more than a deviation from what is good. Evil doesn’t exist in its own right, but anomalies do. God intended that heat should keep us warm and allow us to enjoy our soup. A bolt of lightning might start a wildfire, but that doesn’t make lightning intrinsically evil. Lightning may cause wildfires or simply frighten us, but it basically functions to provide our daily need of the element nitrogen. Nitrogen is the third most abundant element in the human body, and it must be renewed continually if we hope to survive. Unfortunately, irregularities do happen in a good, but potentially not so good world.


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