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John Perry: Dialogue on Good, Evil and the Existence of God

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Released in 1999, John Perry's Dialogue on Good, Evil and the Existence of God puts forth an explanation of god that is compatible with the universe.

It is a dialogue between three characters: Sam (Presbyterian believer), Dave (likely Jewish, intermediate between Sam and Gretchen) and Gretchen (an agnostic or atheist philosopher). Sam wants to say a prayer for Gretchen, but she challenges him: he may say the prayer if he can provide a god system that shows suffering and a perfect god are not necessarily incompatible.

Their discussion, lubricated at times by Dave, is the body of the Dialogue.

Provide me with a story that makes God's perfection and the suffering of his creatures fit together in a consistent whole. The whole need not be true. It can be far-fetched and unbelievable. And of course we agreed that you didn't have to provide details accounting for every evil we can think of. But you need to show how evil can enter into a world created by your all-perfect God, to show the basic mechanisms of evil, one might say.Second Afternoon, Weirob

Human-caused evil

The Dialogue first addresses human-caused evil.
Humans have freedom

Humans commit evil acts, intentionally (pushing your nemesis down the stairs) and unintentionally (accidentally dropping a banana peel on the stairs). How could have a perfect god have created a universe where people commit evil acts?

  1. Freedom is the ability to choose between different courses of action.

  2. Having freedom is better than not. (assumption)

  3. A free being is not controllable.

  4. Free beings often do things that cause suffering.

  5. However, the goodness of freedom outweighs the suffering.

Omnipotent, omniscient god

God is omnipotent and omniscient. God created the world and the beings in it. How could a perfect god have created a being, knowing that being will commit evil acts?

  1. God is omnipotent. God does not do every possible thing, but can.

  2. God chooses to no do some things.

  3. God is omniscient. God does not know every possible thing, but can.

  4. God is both omnipotent and omniscient, and chooses to not know everything.

Unknown, possible outcomes

If god chooses to not know everything, then god can good choose to know nothing. How is that consistent with omniscience?

  1. God could cause any possible outcome.

  2. God could know every possible outcome.

  3. God chooses to not know which outcome will happen.


Next, the Dialogue addresses justice.
Reward and Punishment

If god were perfect, then good beings would suffer neither natural evils (slipping accidentally) nor unnatural evils (being pushed); and bad beings would not reap rewards from their bad deeds. How could a perfect god have allowed such an unjust universe?

  1. Good beings sometimes suffer.

  2. Bad beings sometimes benefit.

  3. The world is unjust.

  4. Injustice in the world could be counterbalanced in the afterlife.

  5. God would thus have not created an unjust universe.

Natural Suffering

Lastly, the Dialogue addresses natural suffering seemingly built into the universe.
Other, evil agents

Not all evil is caused by free choice. Earthquakes kill lives. Tsunamis wipe out populations. Some animals must brutally eat other animals to survive. Plagues claim innumerable lives. This happens because of how god created the world. How could a perfect god have created such a world?

  1. It is conceivable that there are free beings we cannot sensorily detect.

  2. These free beings could do good or evil.

  3. An omniscient god could choose to not know their decisions.

  4. God did not create suffering. These free beings created natural suffering.


The three characters are Perry's inventions, but he gives them cute backgrounds.

The Dialogue is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion, but a reconstruction based on Miller's terse notes and Dave's recollections. Also, Perry's draws from his knowledge of Gretchen's personality.

As the Dialogue was published in 1999, supposedly several years after Miller's death, the Dialogue must have fictionally occurred in the early 1990s.

Sam MillerSam is a Presbyterian chaplain. Sam kept detailed, dry notes of the arguments posited during philosophical discussion with Gretchen and Dave. Several years after Miller's death, Perry found these notes in Miller's copy of Augustine's Confessions.
Dave CohenDave has a Jewish name and seems to believe in god, though he serves as a bridge between Sam and Gretchen's divide. Dave provided much information about how the discussions actually went.
Gretchen WeirobGretchen is an agnostic or atheist philosopher stricken by a cold. Gretchen did not assist Perry in reconstructing the Dialogue, but he knows her personality well.

First Morning

First Afternoon

Second Morning

Second Afternoon

Thoughts on Perry's Dialogue

“Just convince me that the Christian God you believe in -- all-perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent -- could possibly exist, even given as unimportant a bit of suffering as my flu. Do that and I'll let you say a prayer for me.

Why is the challenge issued by Gretchen? What wound count as a successful answer to this challenge? BY the end of the dialogue, Gretchen feels the challlenge has been met. Why?


Dr. Brian Copenhaver. A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. Lecture, UCLA. August 27, 2012.