Philosophy — Religion


The Problem of Evil

In addition to the traditional arguments for the existence of God, one issue has taken the form of an argument against God’s existence: that issue is the problem of evil. The first statement of this problem is usually attributed to Epicurus, but since the moral horrors of the twentieth century have come to represent a significant challenge to orthodox belief, interest in this question has been renewed in recent times. In philosophical discussions of evil, the argument usually takes one of two distinct forms.

Two Problems

One version of the problem of evil takes a purely logical form: that is, it seeks to show that the existence of evil and suffering is inconsistent with certain traditional attributes of God. These qualities are omnipotence and goodness. Since God has both the means and the motive to prevent or remove evil, it is difficult to see why it should exist at all. As David Hume succinctly put it in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion 10:

Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?

This formulation of the problem is, in fact, easily resolved by denying one of the incompatible elements: the existence of evil itself, or God’s omnipotence or benevolence. If any of these are abandoned, the logical inconsistency disappears. Unfortunately it is difficult to deny the existence of evil (although some thinkers have tried); and to deny God’s omnipotence or benevolence is to enter some murky theological waters. The God of classical theism has always possessed these two key attributes, and a limited or morally suspect God presents a whole raft of other problems. Most responses to this logical problem therefore retain the traditional attributes of God but seek to show that there is, in fact, no contradiction here. This approach usually involves establishing logical limits to God’s omnipotence, allowing that he cannot create creatures with free will and determine their actions. It is from the exercise of this freedom that evil arises. Accordingly, this solution to the logical problem is usually called the ‘Free Will Defence’.

The second and more common version of the problem is inductive rather than purely logical. Just as certain traditional arguments for God’s existence start from observable features of the world (apparent design, religious experiences), so the inductive form of the problem of evil starts from our experience of gratuitous suffering and infers that since God fails to prevent such suffering, he must be at best morally indifferent. This version of the argument, usually called the ‘evidential problem of evil’, can also be seen as an attempt to establish the improbability of God’s existence. There are many different responses to this argument, but most involve the claim that God allows evil for complex and sometimes inscrutable reasons. These reasons are developed in the various theodicies that seek to justify God’s permission of evil.

The Definition of Evil

It is traditional to recognise a distinction between at least two types of evil. Moral evil arises from the actions of responsible individuals and groups: this includes particular acts like lying, stealing and murder as well as vices of character such as dishonesty or greed, and certain political or social systems of oppression. Natural evil arises from causes over which people have no control: this includes earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis; diseases like leukaemia and spina bifida; and disabilities such as blindness. This distinction is not as clear-cut as it appears, since some apparently natural evils are the direct result of human choices – poor health may be caused by an irresponsible lifestyle, for instance, and certain natural disasters may be the result of our treatment of the planet. But clearly some evils are in no sense the result of human action, and they may be safely considered natural. A third term that is sometimes used is horrendous evils. These are particularly significant examples of moral evil (such as the Holocaust, the gulags, child abuse) or natural evil (the Asian Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina) and because of their magnitude they feature frequently in the literature as effective challenges to the theist.

The problem of evil is sometimes restated as the problem of suffering: this emphasises the individual’s experience of pain or loss, and focuses the discussion upon particular consequences of evil, rather than the more abstract concept. One theological problem that arises in this connection is the existence of hell. In some traditional doctrines, the punishment of eternal and extreme suffering is meted out to those who have failed to meet God’s demands. The very notion of eternal punishment is difficult to square with a loving God, and the degree of suffering traditionally ascribed to the damned is appallingly sadistic. Thankfully this medieval notion of hell has more or less disappeared from modern theology although the idea of an afterlife of some kind still plays a key role in the discussion of evil.


A theodicy is a systematic attempt to explain the existence of evil and to reconcile that evil with the benevolence and omnipotence of God. Different religions require different theodicies: in Hinduism, for example, since souls are eternal and are not directly created by God, the existence of evil does not contradict God’s goodness and can be explained as ignorance or the workings of karma. The Christian church has historically offered two different theodicies to account for evil and suffering.

The Augustinian theodicy derives from St Augustine (354-430) who argued that since God is the creator and wholly good, he cannot be responsible for the existence of evil in the world. Evil, in fact, does not exist as a separate substance: it is rather a ‘privation’ or an absence of good (as, for example, blindness is an absence of sight or sickness an absence of health). This privation arises through the mistaken actions of humans who possess free will. The archetype for this account is the Fall of Man described in Genesis and the consequent doctrine of original sin. God is therefore exonerated and the blame for evil and suffering lies squarely with humans who choose corruption over goodness. While the Augustinian theodicy seeks to account for moral evil through human freedom, it is less persuasive as an explanation of natural evil, which Augustine attributes to Lucifer and the fallen angels wreaking malicious havoc with God’s creation. This dependency upon scriptural myths like the garden of Eden and the fall of the rebel angels does not endear the theodicy to sceptics. But perhaps the strongest objection is the problematic notion of free will which plays such a prominent role in all theodicies. For Augustine, the difficulty centres upon the creation of a ‘finitely perfect’ being who chooses privation over perfection: to make this choice humans must have been flawed from the start, which shifts responsibility back to God the creator. This theodicy also appears to be an inadequate explanation of horrendous evils and the terrible suffering of innocents: to describe evil as merely a ‘privation’ does not do justice to its very tangible effects.

The Irenaean theodicy derives from the second-century St Irenaeus and has been recently restated by John Hick. The central feature of this account is the aspect of soul making: evil and suffering exist in the world to enable imperfect creatures to grow towards a more perfect state. Unlike the Augustinian theodicy which stresses Man’s fall from perfection, the Irenaean theodicy emphasises development: through the exercise of free will, people can overcome difficulty and temptation and thus approach God and perfection. This is not an easy task as God cannot be immediately known: he creates an epistemic distance between himself and us, like a prince who woos a peasant girl in disguise so that she will love him for who he really is. This accounts for our doubt and scepticism about God’s goodness. Evil was created by God but for a soul-making purpose: some moral goods, like courage and forgiveness, can only arise as a response to suffering, and (more generally) souls evolve towards a higher state through their experience of evil. Moreover, disaster must strike randomly. In a world where virtue is always rewarded and evil always punished, a disinterested act performed for its own sake would be almost impossible. This inscrutability is part of the epistemic distance. Since death is so frequently the consequence of such disasters, reincarnation is also required for a soul’s journey to be completed. While there may indeed be some beneficial value in overcoming difficulties, a common objection to this theodicy is the amount of evil in the world which hardly seems a reasonable way of achieving the making of a soul. Moreover, the suggestion that the end justifies the means does not sound persuasive when applied to evils like the Holocaust. As Richard J Bernstein commented:

After Auschwitz it is obscene to speak of evil and suffering as something to be justified by, or reconciled with, a benevolent cosmological scheme.

Our response to such justifications of evil and suffering may well be sceptical given our experience of the world. Leibniz famously described this as ‘the best of all possible worlds’, arguing like Irenaeus that some suffering is necessary for second-order goods like courage and compassion. Leibniz optimistically considered this world the best balance of good and evil. This optimism was effectively satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide: Pangloss persists in his belief that this is the best of all possible worlds even when his circumstances are so dire as to make such an assertion irrational.

The Jewish author Elie Wiesel, while imprisoned at Auschwitz, witnessed three Jewish prisoners put God on trial for betrayal and oppression: the prisoners found him guilty and then went off to pray. Such a story captures the essence of a Protest Theodicy which explains the existence of evil by denying that God is wholly good. There are precedents for such a protest even in the Bible (Abraham, Job, the Psalms) and it has been renewed primarily as a response to the Holocaust. Protest Theodicies maintain a tension between worship and interrogation: we yearn for God’s love and at the same time hold him accountable for the suffering that he allows. While humans must bear much of the blame for evil because of their freely chosen actions, this freedom is itself a cause of protest. Freedom is God’s gift, but it is both too little (to allow us to cure cancer or prevent natural disasters) and too much (to allow for genocides and holocausts). God therefore bears ultimate responsibility for evil. Such a denial of God’s benevolence has the added benefit of resolving the logical problem of evil, but only at the cost of positing a God who seems hardly worthy of worship. As John K Roth puts it in A Theodicy of Protest:

Everything hinges on the proposition that God possesses – but fails to use well enough – the power to intervene decisively at any moment to make history’s course less wasteful. Thus, in spite and because of his sovereignty, this God is everlastingly guilty and the degrees run from gross negligence to mass murder.

Another approach is that of Process Theology which removes the problem of evil by denying God’s omnipotence. Unlike the God of classical theism, this God did not create the universe ex nihilo but rather brought order to existing chaos, and seeks to persuade us to actualise our potential. Moral evil is the failure to do this, and natural evil is a consequence of the flawed materials of creation and God’s own limited power. The God of Process Theology is thus less remote and detached from our human experience: he is a ‘co-sharer’ and ‘co-sufferer’ when we abuse our freedom and make the wrong choice. While such a theology may accord more closely with our experience of the world, it is far removed from orthodox accounts. This God is still developing and lacks the attributes of omnipotence, benevolence and impassibility. As a result, Process Theology has drawn criticism from traditional theologians – not least for its apparent denial of a life after death.

The existence of an afterlife is central to most theodicies since it offers a limitless reward to those who have suffered because of moral evil (and, perhaps, punishment to those who have caused it). This involves a metaphysical claim that goes well beyond the scope of this discussion, but two points should be noted. Firstly, it has been claimed that the reward of eternal bliss seems to trivialise the sometimes horrendous evil in this life. Events such as the Holocaust or the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia are intrinsically evil, and no amount of compensation will serve to justify their occurrence. Secondly, as a response to the evidential problem of evil, it seems to founder on our ignorance of any future state. As Bertrand Russell put it:

Supposing you got a crate of oranges that you opened, and you found all the top layer of oranges bad, you would not argue, “The underneath ones must be good, so as to redress the balance.” You would say, “Probably the whole lot is a bad consignment”; and that is really what a scientific person would argue about the universe. He would say, “Here we find in this world a great deal of injustice, and so far as that goes that is a reason for supposing that justice does not rule in the world; and therefore so far as it goes it affords a moral argument against deity and not in favor of one.”

The Free Will Defence

At the heart of most theodicies is an assumption concerning the existence and value of free will. A similar approach was taken by Alvin Plantinga as a means of resolving the logical problem of evil. Plantinga argued from two key premises. Firstly, that the existence of free beings is an intrinsically good thing as it allows morally significant choices and the good consequences of these choices (love, generosity, self-sacrifice, compassion and so on). Secondly, that for this freedom to exist there must also exist the possibility of evil. To expect God to create free beings and simultaneously to prevent their making immoral choices is to demand a logical impossibility. Most theologians allow that God’s omnipotence does not include the power to do the logically impossible: he cannot make 2 + 2 = 5; he cannot make a square circle; he cannot create a rock too heavy for him to lift; and he cannot grant a person free will and coerce them at the same time. So the ultimately greater good of human freedom is a product of God’s benevolence; and the evil that exists is a consequence of humans making poor use of that freedom. This defence appears to resolve the logical problem of evil by allowing God to be both omnipotent and benevolent and putting the blame for evil and suffering squarely in the lap of humans.

There has been considerable debate about the Free Will Defence, much of it centred upon whether or not God could have created free beings that freely choose never to cause suffering – if so, then evil need not exist and the defence fails. There is also a question over whether such freedom is logically compatible with God’s omniscience, and in particular his knowledge of the future. But it is generally agreed that Plantinga has provided a satisfactory solution to the logical problem of evil by showing that the existence of evil is compatible with both the benevolence and omnipotence of God.

Attention has therefore shifted from the logical problem to the evidential problem where the Free Will Defence no longer seems adequate. Perhaps most importantly, the argument assumes a libertarian conception of freedom and responsibility that is philosophically problematic, to say the least. It is difficult to see how people’s choices can meaningfully be removed from the processes of causality apparent in the world – and the failure to do so would once again implicate God in the actions that cause evil and suffering. The Free Will Defence also fails to give a satisfactory account of natural evils. Plantinga has claimed that they are a consequence of moral evil, citing the biblical account of the Fall. But it seems perfectly reasonable that God could act to prevent natural disasters without curtailing human free will, and it is hardly plausible to claim that a volcano or a tsunami could be explained in terms of human actions. For these reasons, the Free Will Defence – while it may resolve the logical problem – has no real answer to the evidential problem of evil.


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