The Problem of Evil
March 10, 2012
All of the major religions address the problems of evil, suffering and death. However, the problem of evil is mainly a problem for the monotheistic religions, i.e., Judaism, Islam and Christianity, since they assert that there exists an all-loving, all powerful God. The problem of evil is the major argument against an all-loving, omnipotent God. David Hume provided a succinct and colourful summary of the problem of evil as follows:
- Is he [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?” (Hume 1779)
Evil can come in two forms: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is due to human evil acts, whereas natural evil is due to non-human acts that occur in nature, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods or fire. It is also possible for moral evil and natural evil to overlap. For example, the interception of food aid may cause others to starve. Any complete theodicy must account for both types of evil. Most theodicies tend to
- deny the reality of evil,
- redefine the goodness of God, or
- limit God’s omnipotence.
I will now review some of the historical responses to the problem of evil.
2 Historical Responses
Irenaeus (130 AD – 202 AD) believed that evil was a means for growth in human character and has a valuable role to play in God’s plans.
This view has also been developed further in recent times by John Hick. Humanity is created incomplete and must make free choices in the face of evil in order to obtain completeness. Genuine perfection cannot just be bestowed on humanity; it must be developed through our choices. This necessarily entails the risk of making wrong choices. In addition, an experience of evil is necessary in order to understand and appreciate the good. Effectively, Irenaeus is saying that evil may seem real to us, but it is not ultimately. Thus this theodicy is a denial of the full reality of evil. For instance, is pain evil? In fact it helps us avoid further damage and thus pain provides us with a warning signal.
There is some truth in Irenaeus’ view. God can certainly use evil for good purposes. This is illustrated in the life of Joseph (Genesis 50:20) and also when Jesus was delivered up by the hands of wicked men in accordance with God’s plan (Acts 2:23). If Irenaeus’ view is correct then this provides an explanation of how God can be loving and yet allow evil. Irenaeus also went on to teach that all will be ultimately saved and he reduced Christ’s atonement to an example rather than the objective means for our salvation. Both of these propositions are un-biblical but, apart from his un-biblical propositions, Irenaeus’ argument seems to have a great deal of merit. However, the argument from pain is not complete. The normal experience of pain is quite functional but, if pain is used as a means of torture, then this defeats its functional purpose and the pain experience seems to have no redeeming properties. I don’t think it is necessary to infer that evil is not real from Irenaeus’ argument. If God uses evil for his own good purposes how does that necessarily infer that the evil is not real?
2.2 St Augustine
St Augustine proposed what is now called the free-will defence.
He taught that God’s creation was good and that God gave free will to both angelic beings and humanity. Some angelic beings rebelled against God and chose evil. They became the source of temptation to Adam and Eve. Moral evil is the result of our choices and natural evil is the punishment for moral evil. Evil is the privation of good and so God could not have created evil, as evil is when something is missing from God’s creation.
The free will defence is an objection to Hume’s first premise: “If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able, then is he impotent”. The free will argument is that it is unreasonable to claim that God is impotent if he cannot perform the logically impossible. For instance, it is logically impossible to create a square circle. If God cannot create a square circle, then this does not mean that God is not omnipotent. The free-will argument is that God has determined that it is better to create creatures with free-will rather than creatures whose behaviour is determined. However, it is logically impossible to give creatures free will without preventing the possibility of these creatures from choosing evil. Thus evil is an unavoidable consequence of giving humanity free will. Thus the free-will argument places limitations on God’s power.
Now human choice obviously accounts for a large portion of the evil that is present in this world. If bad human choices were eliminated, then this world would be a much better place. However, the free-will argument seems to have a number of limitations. The argument from free will does not obviously account for natural evil, as natural evil is usually not the result of human choices. Some natural evils are preventable. For example, we have some measure of choice over where we live and some places are safer than others. On the other hand, there is no place that is absolutely safe and we are always susceptible to some harm, no matter what precautions we take. Thus the Bible teaches us not to rely just on our own resources but to trust in God. The notion of free-will also requires qualification. In what sense are our wills free? Once we get to know a person, then their choices can be quite predictable. Our wills are free in the sense that our choices are not being forced by an external agent but they are substantially determined by our character, and conversely our choices also shape our character. Another complicating factor is that the Biblical writers claim that our wills have been affected by the fall such that we are predisposed to rebel against God. The free-will defence also raises questions regarding our future destiny. What about heaven? Will heavenly creatures have free-will? If so, then can evil be re-introduced into heaven? Appealing to free-will also appears dissonant relative to the Bible. The Bible certainly assumes human responsibility, but there is barely any mention of free will in the Bible at all except for a few references to free will offerings. Why appeal to a philosophical category that is basically missing from the primary Christian source document?
Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz suggested that we live in the best of all possible worlds.
He contended that “the present state of the universe exists because it follows from the nature of God that he should prefer the most perfect” (Leibniz 1890). Thus this theory limits God’s power. This was effectively refuted by Voltaire in Candide, which was a satire wherein Voltaire created a fictional sequence of tragedies for Candide, the hero.
In the end, Candide survives and Dr Pangloss, the spokesman for Liebniz, implausibly concludes:
There is a concatenation of all events in the best of possible worlds; for, in short, had you not been kicked out of a fine castle for the love of Miss Cunegund; had you not been put into the Inquisition; had you not travelled over America on foot; had you not run the Baron through the body; and had you not lost all your sheep, which you brought from the good country of El Dorado, you would not have been here to eat preserved citrons and pistachio nuts (Voltaire 1759).
However, were all these circumstances really necessary for Candide to arrive at his final destination? The notion appears ridiculous; so how could this be the best of all possible worlds? An additional weakness in this theory is that it is pastorally insensitive and unhelpful.
In latter times Leibniz has received some support from a scientific perspective. For example, the movement of tectonic plates results in earthquakes and volcanoes, but this may be necessary to replenish the gaseous state of the atmosphere and so support life. Thus God’s hands may be tied. From a Biblical perspective, this theory seems implausible. If this is the best of all possible worlds, then what about heaven? Will that be constrained such that evil is still present?
2.4 Process Theodicy
Process theodicy is the belief that God is not fixed but is undergoing development. Thus the presence of evil is due to the fact that God has not yet got things sorted out. Process theodicy is a denial of the power and omnipotence of God. It certainly does not reflect the Biblical God who knows the end from the beginning.
3 Objections to Premises
Having completed the summary of historical theodicies, I will now discuss objections to Hume’s argument.
One objection to Hume’s argument is to challenge his second premise: “If God is able to prevent evil but is not willing, is God necessarily malevolent?” How do we know whether God does not have some good reason for allowing or even ordaining suffering that may seem evil to us? For instance, a parent may allow their child to suffer the consequence of their actions in order for them to learn, or may punish their child for their better good. How do we know whether this is not the case for all forms of human suffering?
No doubt there is some validity in this objection. In many instances, a greater good may emerge from suffering. Even in those instances where this is not obviously so, we do not see the full picture and are not in a position to know with certainty that any suffering is pointless or does not have a higher purpose. In arguments for the existence of God the onus of proof is on the theist, but for the problem of evil the onus of proof is on the anti-theist. For this case, it is impossible for the anti-theist to prove that any instance of suffering or evil is pointless. This argument constitutes a reinterpretation of the goodness of God.
The main problem with this objection is the issue of plausibility. Some instances of evil appear to be pointless and inexplicable, even though the case cannot be proven. In the recent Japanese tsunami (11 March 2011), thousands of Japanese were killed. No doubt, the humanitarian response was encouraging and the source of great good. However, the result for those who were killed seems somewhat final. Within Christian theology there is also the problem of hell. The way is narrow that leads to life and only a few find it. The majority are destined for eternal suffering. What benefit can come from eternal suffering if there is no resultant ultimate good? Why is there infinite suffering for a finite offence? Certainly God gives humanity the dignity to make choices that have eternal consequences. Perhaps our choices are only meaningful if they do have eternal consequences.
Since God is our father, it is instructive to consider the corresponding issues for human parenting. Our children are born with wills of their own. Would we have it any other way? We would rather have children who make their own choices rather than robots that did everything we said. This entails risk and sometimes our children disappoint us, even permanently, and yet we still think this is preferable to the deterministic alternative. A good parent will sometimes cause their children pain and suffering if it is just or is for their long term good. Imagine that there existed a harmless happiness drug that guaranteed perpetual happiness. Would we as parents want our children to take it? Most would not. It is a greater good for our children to grow through making choices regarding good and evil and experiencing suffering in order to grow in maturity. The analogy is not perfect. Most parents love their children but they are not omnipotent. However, they have some power and, when there are problems, the lack of power is usually not the issue.
4 Biblical Perspective
So far I have discussed the problem of evil mainly from a philosophical perspective. However, the Biblical perspective should also be considered when considering the foregoing arguments in relation to the Christian God. The following is a summary of various Biblical teachings that are relevant to the problem of evil.
4.1 The Origin of Evil
In accordance with Genesis 1, God created a world that was good. Romans 5:12-15 states that sin and death entered the world through one man. However, God placed the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden, and Adam and Eve were subsequently confronted by the tempter. These 2 factors indicate that evil existed, in some way, prior to the fall, but its origin is not explained. Revelation 13:8 states that the lamb was slain from the creation of the world. When Adam sinned God didn’t say, “Oops!” Thus it seems that the origin of evil is somehow incorporated within the plan of God.
4.2 God as Judge
The Old Testament clearly depicts God as judging humanity. This is exhibited in the flood, the judgements on Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues against Egypt, the eviction of the Canaanites and numerous judgements against the nations. It is popularly thought that God undergoes a conversion from sternness to love between the Old and New Testaments, but this is not borne out by the evidence. The wrath of God is still being revealed against unrighteousness and numerous judgements and plagues are prophesied in the book of Revelation. God is not afraid to punish evildoers, and he says so repeatedly.
4.3 The Book of Job
The book of Job provides an extensive treatment of the problem of evil and suffering. In the first 2 chapters Satan claims that Job is only good because God blesses him. Thus Job’s suffering is supposedly to test Job’s sincerity. Job’s friends subsequently propose various unsatisfactory rationales for Job’s sufferings. However, when God appears to Job, no explanation is provided and there is no reference back to Satan. God does not use Satan as an excuse for Job’s suffering. God mainly states that his knowledge goes beyond Job’s understanding. Job is answered in the act of meeting God, and this experience is a total answer as far as Job is concerned. In addition, even though he never received an answer to his questions, God rewarded him such that he is more than compensated for his sufferings.
4.4 Jesus and the Purpose of Evil
There are several instances in the New Testament where Jesus had the opportunity for explaining the purpose of evil or suffering. One man was born blind, not because of anyone’s sin but “that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:1-3). However, it seems that this explanation cannot be generalised to all other cases. The Galileans who Pilate slaughtered and the eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them were not unusually sinful but “unless you repent, you will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5). However, Jesus still provides no explanation for these tragedies.
4.5 The Atonement
The atonement provides a solution to the problem of evil. Jesus’ death bore the punishment due to our sin, and he laid the foundation for the destruction of all evil and the creation of the new heaven and the new earth. The atonement is also an emotional solution to the problem of evil since God so loved the world that he sent his only son who shared in our condition. God has done something about the problem of evil that was enormously costly. However, this still does not provide a rational explanation of why God allowed evil into the world in the first place.
The doctrine of election creates a problem for theodicy. Even though election is a controversial subject, it seems to be plainly taught within scripture. No-one can come to the son unless the father draws him (John 6:44) and all that are given to the son will come to him (John 6:37). The purpose of election is to teach us that our salvation is entirely of grace rather than due to merit in our choice. However, what about those who are not chosen? As Calvin says, those whom God has not chosen “he reprobates”. Why damn those who cannot respond? The Calvinist may respond that the reprobate still makes a deliberate choice. However, many Christians respond to election by rationalisations that diminish its force.
4.7 Christian Suffering
Universal suffering is difficult to explain, but Christian suffering is more explicable. Peter says that we are to arm ourselves to suffer as Christ suffered and to follow in his steps (1 Peter 4:1); and Paul strangely says that we are to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Colossians 1:24). Righteous suffering is not just inevitable; it also has a redemptive purpose. For the Christian, suffering is not just permitted by God; it is ordained.
4.8 Explanatory Biblical Doctrines
The Bible does not provide us with an explanation of how evil can co-exist with a good, all-powerful God. God knows, but he hasn’t told us. However, William Lane Craig has suggested that various Christian doctrines make it more likely that suffering and evil can coexist with a good omnipotent God (Craig, 2010).
- The chief purpose of life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God. The goal of utilitarianism may be to maximise happiness and minimise suffering for the majority of people over the long run, but this is not God’s goal. God’s goal is that we come to know him and grow in maturity towards the image of Christ, and this will entail suffering.
- Man is in rebellion against God and so the evil that we observe in the world is not unexpected.
- God’s purpose is not restricted to this life, but is completed in the next life. Our earthly existence may seem unfair but God will administer true justice at the judgement.
- The knowledge of God is an incommensurable good that is not worth comparing with our earthly sufferings (2 Corinthians 6:4-5).
5.1 An Atheistic Answer
The problem of evil is not a problem for the atheist. The world is as it is and any natural evils are just bad luck. Human selfishness is simply a by product of the survival of the fittest. If the problem of evil was the only argument related to the existence of God then it would be simpler to conclude that God did not exist.
5.2 Summary of Theodicies
A number of theodicies have been proposed that provide some explanation of how God can be omnipotent and omni-benevolent and yet allow evil. There are elements of truth in most of these theodicies. They open up possible explanations but do not provide definitive solutions. God can use evil for good purposes and the pain or suffering that we experience can have educational or redemptive purposes. Much of our suffering is also due to our choices and may be inevitable considering the nature of our choice faculty. Thus neither of Hume’s premises is necessarily true. However, the Bible does not provide an explanation for the origin of evil, it does not resort to a free will defence to explain how God cannot prevent humans from choosing evil and it does not provide an explanation of how God can have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil. God does not justify himself to us.
5.3 The Final Revelation
However, the Biblical writers do maintain that God is just, merciful and righteous altogether and that he knows the end from the beginning. It is the Christian belief that at the final judgement God will be revealed as being just in all of his acts and decisions even though we cannot see how it all works out now:
After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments” (Revelation 19:1-2).
In Genesis 18:24 Abraham challenged God with, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” It is implied that he will. This is a faith position, but not a blind faith position. It is based on what we already know about God from special revelation and our own experience. It is still reasonable to believe that God can resolve things in a loving and just manner even though we currently cannot understand all of the details. He is omniscient, but we are not. In the meantime this world is not the best of all possible worlds but it may be the best way to the best of all possible worlds.
Craig, W.L. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edition (Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2008)
Craig, W.L. On Guard: Defending your faith with Reason and Precision, 1st edition (Crossway: Wheaton, Illinois, 2010)
God, Reason and Religion Manual (Tabor College Adelaide).
Hume, D. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, first published 1779.
Leibniz, G. W. The Philosophical Works of Leibniz, ed. G. Duncan (London, 1890), 101.
McGrath, A.E. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 4th edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).
Voltaire, Candide, first published in 1759 (New York: Random House, 1956), 188f.