The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil
Origins of the Problem
• The problem of evil begins with the
observation that a loving and powerful God
would prevent evil and suffering. Since evil
and suffering exist, God (traditionally
understood) cannot exist.
• The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus is
credited with discovering this problem.
• The problem was then promoted by David
Hume, who made Epicurus a character in
one of his dialogues.
David Hume
The Inconsistent Triad
An inconsistent triad is a series of three
propositions which cannot all be true at the
same time. Epicurus and Hume expressed
this as follows:
1) God is all-loving (omnibenevolent)
2) God is all-powerful (omnipotent)
3) Evil and suffering exist
• Conclusion: God either is not all-loving or
all-powerful, or he does not exist.
Moral and Natural Evil
• Philosophers since the time of Augustine
have distinguished between ‘moral’ and
‘natural’ evil.
• Moral evil refers to evil caused by moral
agents (i.e. the free choices of human
persons – murder, rape, etc.).
• Natural evil refers to the suffering caused by
natural events (e.g. drought, disease,
earthquakes, etc.).
Saint Augustine
Augustine’s Theodicy
• Augustine was bishop of Hippo (Algeria) in the
fourth century.
• Augustine argued that evil did not really exist as
a ‘thing in itself’. Rather, it is merely an absence
of good, a ‘privatio boni’.
• Creation was originally perfect, but evil is what
happened when people used their free will to
turn against God.
• Adam and Eve chose to rebel against God in
the Garden of Eden, an act which Augustine
calls ‘Original Sin’.
It’s all their fault.
“To defect from him who is
the Supreme Existence, to
something of less reality,
this is to begin to have an
evil will.”
• God did not create anything evil. He gave
creatures free will (a good thing) so that they
could choose to depart from what he intended.
• There will be rewards for those who turn to God
and punishment for those who do not.
• However, human free will only explains moral
evil. To get around the problem of natural evil,
Augustine argued that fallen angels had chosen
to cause earthquakes, diseases, etc. This
allows free will to explain all aspects of evil.
Criticisms of Augustine
• This still doesn’t explain why evil exists. If God
knows everything, he would have known that
Original Sin would happen. Why did he allow it?
• According to John Mackie, free will is not an
adequate explanation. An omnipotent God
could have created free moral agents who
would always do the right thing.
• The references to Adam and Eve, and angels
causing natural disasters do not fit with our
modern world view – who would believe that?
These are out-dated myths.
Response to Criticisms
• God may have known that evil would occur but still
had just reasons for creating things as he did. Perhaps
the ability to reject God is an important part of giving
us meaningful free choices – we are not just robots.
• Mackie is wrong to say that God could make free
people always choose good. According to Alvin
Plantinga, actualising a world in which certain free
choices must be made contradicts the whole idea of
• Adam and Eve might be out of date, but the general
point about free will remains a good one.
Saint Irenaeus
Irenaeus’ Theodicy
• Irenaeus was bishop of Lyon in the 2nd century.
• His theodicy is teleological – it is concerned
with the ultimate purpose of evil and suffering.
• He argued that humans were not made perfect
in the beginning; they were created like infants.
• The sin of Adam and Eve was not catastrophic;
humans have to struggle and make mistakes so
that they can eventually gain perfection.
• Humans are made in the image of God, but
they will one day share his likeness.
“It was possible for God Himself to have made man perfect
from the first, but man could not receive this, being yet an
John Hick builds on Irenaeus…
• Modern philosopher John Hick has tried to develop
and improve Irenaeus’ theodicy.
• He calls his approach the ‘vale of soul-making’
theodicy. He argues…
• If God made our world cosy and safe, it would be like
making a cage for a pet. Human life is meaningful
because we have to grow up.
• Suffering and difficulties allow us to develop integrity,
courage, compassion, etc.
• God is also ‘hidden’, meaning that his existence isn’t
immediately obvious. This makes belief more of a
challenge or trial.
Criticisms of Irenaeus and Hick
• Surely it’s possible to learn values and virtues
without great suffering; isn’t there another way?
• The process of human development might
justify some suffering, but surely not the awful
pain experienced by many in this life.
• A lot of suffering is ‘dysteleological’; it is
apparently pointless. What does a six year old
child who starves to death learn from this
process? This cannot be just.
Responses to Criticisms
• To suggest that we could learn values without
suffering is mere speculation.
• Great/significant pain does build character.
Some people have achieved amazing things
after terrible adversity. It is wrong to suggest
that we can learn simply through minor pains.
• Hick responds to dysteleological suffering with
the afterlife – our souls may continue to develop
after death, justifying what appears to be
meaningless suffering now.
Another Theodicy – “The Best of All
Possible Worlds”
• An argument developed by the philosopher Gottfried
Leibniz (1646-1716).
• Leibniz argued that God is all-powerful, but still could
not create an absurd, logically contradictory world (a
world without natural laws, etc.)
• Given that there are these reasonable limitations, God
created “the best of all possible worlds”. The world
needs things like an atmosphere, even though this
causes problems such as hurricanes. It’s not perfect,
bit it’s the best world that could be made.
• If God is all-powerful, why could he not make a
world which is perfect, ignoring such difficulties
as natural laws?
• How do we know that this world is the best
possible? There might be a better one out there
• This thought isn’t very comforting for those
experiencing pain. As Voltaire ironically
remarked: “all’s for the best in the best of all
possible worlds”.
Process Theology
• Developed by the theologians Alfred North
Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne.
• God is not omnipotent in the sense that he has
not created a universe which must obey his will.
• Instead, the universe is in a constant state of
change and process. God’s power is
persuasion; he tries to bring things round to his
will, to what is good.
• The God of Process Theology really is not
very powerful – is he worthy of worship?
• Since God is no longer an all-powerful
judge, is there any point in being good?
• God may be trying to influence or
persuade creatures to do good, but is
there really any evidence of this?
Final thoughts…
• The problem of evil is only a problem if we
attempt to maintain a perfectly classical
definition of God. If we change his
attributes, the problem may go away.
• It is one thing to say that we cannot justify
evil, but it is quite another to say that evil
cannot be justified. God may have a
purpose behind evil and suffering, but it
may not be known to us.