Bronze-level articleProblem of evil

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If God is great, he is not good. / If God is good, he is not great.
—Archibald MacLeish, J. B.
How can I believe in God when just last week I got my tongue caught in the roller of an electric typewriter?
—Woody Allen

The problem of evil states that the existence of evil in the world is a strong argument against the existence of a God. Typically this is in the Abrahamic sense of God as being all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving - as many other deities or formulations of divine beings are perfectly compatible with the existence of evil (e.g., deism). The problem was first proposed by Greek philosopher Epicurus around B.C. 300.

This entire problem has been given a branch of theology called theodicy. A wide range of responses have been given to the problem of evil. These include the explanation that God's act of creation and God's act of judgement are the same act.[1] God's condemnation of evil is believed to be executed and expressed in His created world; a judgement that is unstoppable due to God's all powerful, opinionated will; a constant and eternal judgement that becomes announced and communicated to other people on Judgement Day. In this explanation, God is viewed as good because His judgement of evil is a good judgement. Related to theodicy are anthropodicy — the attempt to justify humanity as good despite the great evils humanity has been responsible for — and cosmodicy — the attempt to justify the universe as good in the face of the great evils it contains.[2]

Of course, not all (probably not even most) the gods that humanity has invented were omnibenevolent. Numerous gods have character flaws or some degree of evil inside them, others are intentionally villainous, and many are simply indifferent. Similarly, these gods may not be described as all-powerful. The logical problem of evil doesn't apply to intentionally evil or indifferent gods or gods with limited power, though the evidential problem of evil still applies. However, this is almost the actual point of the argument; such evil, indifferent or non-omnipotent beings would be completely compatible with the observed world, while benevolent and omnipotent deities are not.


[edit] Judeo-Christian beliefs

I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.
Isaiah 45:7b, KJV

In the Old Testament period, there was an attempt to create a tight one-for-one relationship between sin and death, righteousness and life. Unfortunately, this rarely panned out. The wicked often flourished, became rich and lived long, happy lives while the virtuous and poor often fell sick and were cut short from the blessings of life. This flawed theodicy was applied on the national scale regarding Israel. When the nation failed in battle with the Canaanites or was conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians and Greeks, prophets arose to offer an explanation in terms of a failure to correctly observe the Law. Jeremiah even said the Jews were exiled to allow the land to observe the sabbaths for 70 years to make up for their collective failure to keep the sabbaths. When you get out to the Shoah of the 1930's and 40s, or the Holocaust, with six million Jews slain, the people began to wonder if maybe Yahweh was a little bit too focused on how his sabbaths were to be observed.

The problem of evil is unusual in objections to religion in that Christian apologists generally accept that it is a persuasive, legitimate, rational criticism of theism.[3] As a result, the problem of evil is generally regarded by Christians as one of the greatest threats to religion.[4] Further, Christians have scrambled to find a wide[5] variety[6] of solutions.[7]

[edit] The logical problem of evil

The logical problem of evil takes many forms, one of which is noted here:

  1. An omnipotent god would be able to prevent evil and suffering.
  2. An omniscient god would know that preventable evil and suffering happen.
  3. An omnibenevolent god would prevent evil and suffering if possible.
  4. Assume temporarily that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god exists.
  5. From 1-4: Evil does not exist.
  6. From observation: Evil and suffering exist.
  7. Steps 5 and 6 form a contradiction. Therefore, the assumption (4) is false.

Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god cannot exist.

Others phrase it a bit more simply:

  1. If an omnipotent deity allows suffering to happen, then it is not worth worshipping.
  2. Suffering happens.
  3. Therefore any existing omnipotent deity is not worth worshipping.

[edit] Can't vs won't

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

One way out of the problem of evil is to change one's beliefs to a god that can't or won't stop evil. Whether a god can't or won't prevent evil changes what kind of god said god becomes. A god who can't end evil and suffering is not omnipotent. A god who won't end evil and suffering is not omnibenevolent. The question becomes: "If a god exists, is she/he/it unwilling [won't] or unable [can't] to prevent evil?"

[edit] Can't

The "can't" explanation produces a non-omnipotent deity, which is problematic for some belief systems, but allows an omnibenevolent god to exist. This solves the logical problem of evil, but does not solve the evidential problem of evil. While a god of this nature might exist, it must be weaker than all of the suffering present in the universe, as it is clearly unable to stop it. This leaves a believer either with a god too weak to stop murders (much less create a universe or life) or a god that won't solve the problem of evil, both of which believers usually will not accept.

[edit] Won't

The "won't" explanation produces a non-omnibenevolent deity, which is problematic for some belief systems, but allows an omnipotent god to exist. This answer is far more disturbing, as it promotes that an all-powerful being wanted inhabitants of the universe to suffer, or at least didn't care enough to stop said suffering (One notable example of a being that won't stop evil would be an omnimalevolent god, who would have its own Problem of Good)[8]. A god who has intentionally stepped back (the omni-I-don't-give-a-**** kind) from the material universe would also be compatible with deism but also with the ideas of maltheism and dystheism, which questions the whole "goodness" of God and ascribes certain evil properties to God.

[edit] Responses and theodicy

A theist's typical response to the problem of evil is to challenge the existence of unnecessary evil by explaining that God has purposes for every instance of evil and suffering, be it to punish sinners, to test the faithful, or to make a point about something. This, however, does not explain god's tendency to punish innocents as well as sometimes killing Christians instead of trying to prove a point to them, and god's tendency to not punish evildoers. More extremist view suggests everything is the result of sin, whether the original one or the ones later added.

Another interesting theist response is that God, although all-loving and all-knowing, is not omnipotent in himself (or herself) but relies on humanity to get things done. This leads to the question of whether that god is worthy of worship at all, if mankind can get their things done on their own anyway. The all-lovingness of said god can also be doubted with the paragraph above.

A third response is to suggest that while "night" is the lack of light, so "evil" is the lack of God[9]. This is a problematic answer, as it suggest that those who suffer do not love God enough. See Blaming the victim for the counter to that problem.

When challenged about specific cases, they will often say that the God has a plan for everyone and everything, but his ways are mysterious and his reasons may be unclear to us (or words to that effect). This does not resolve the problem of evil; it only tells us that we do not understand, therefore shifting the focus from logic to faith.

[edit] Free will theodicy

Now, the classic defense of God against the problem of evil is that it’s not logically possible to have free will and no possibility of moral evil. ... Built into the situation of God deciding to create human beings is the chance of evil and, consequently, the suffering that results. ... The source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom. ... The overwhelming majority of pain in the world is caused by our choices to kill, to slander to be selfish, to stray sexually, to break our promises, to be reckless.
—Peter Kreeft
If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good?
—John Mackie

An alternative view is evil is tolerated because the existence of free will[10] is much more valuable[11] than the prevention of evil. This view, the "free will defence", is the most common theist response when pressed for a more logical answer than the ones listed above and was first posited by Augustine of Hippo[12] and subsequently "refined" (i.e. repackaged) by Plantinga. Theists like to claim that Plantinga's version of the theodicy is the definitive solution to the problem of evil, ignoring that Plantinga's arguments have been criticised by both philosophers and theologians.[13]

The free will defense is as follows:

  1. Free will is valued by God more than anything else in the material world
  2. To restrict people's ability to impact others in any way is to deprive them of free will
  3. God cannot prevent evil without also preventing free will

One might question exactly what makes "free will" so good. Proponents of divine command theory might argue that free will is good because it is a part of God's nature or beliefs, while others might try to make the claim that total freedom really is good. One might wonder why most theists then support any attempts by people or governments to prevent the crimes which God apparently doesn't want to.[14] If free will is so important, why does God allow brainwashing? This should also count for those who believe in demonic possession, especially if the demons doing the possessing have no free will themselves. Why does the free will of the brainwasher matter more than the free will of the victim? Furthermore, "free will" is merely the ability to choose among available options. The ability to have all options available is not free will but omnipotence. Humans are not able to kill each other by simply wishing it; does the lack of this ability mean that humans do not have free will? There are already restrictions on humans' ability to kill each other. So, is the current level of ability somehow "optimal"?

Furthermore, one may argue that omniscience and free will are mutually exclusive:

  1. A truly all-knowing being will know everything that will ever occur in the future before it occurs.
  2. An all-knowing being's knowledge cannot be flawed.[15]
  3. From Items 1 and 2, an all-knowing being will know, in advance, what decisions will be made before a decision is made. From Item 2, this knowledge must be true.
  4. From Item 3, all decisions have already been made in the all-knowning entity's knowledge before they occur.
  5. From Item 4, nobody can freely make a decision because its result is known in advance. Therefore, free will is mutually exclusive with an omniscient entity.

[edit] Soul-making theodicy

The soul-making or Irenaean theodicy is a lesser-known explanation which argues that Man cannot accept God without love, and Man cannot love without first feeling pain. These theists believe that the amount of evil in the world is exactly the amount necessary for the creation of human souls capable of going to heaven. This was once very popular, but in modern times has seldom been used in debate in part because two world wars, the Holocaust, and the threat of nuclear obliteration have made many skeptical that they would be soulless in a happier world.[16] John Hick, an evangelical theologian who later became a Quaker, is a notable proponent of this theodicy. Modern neuroscience easily shows pain and pleasure and love have different origins in the brain and don't require each other.

[edit] Love of particular persons theodicy

This explanation argues that, although people in general could exist without evil, the particular people who now exist could not and even an omnipotent God could not create them. The lives of all who now live are so deeply entwined with the evils of the past, that without all of those evils, or the bulk of them, everyone now alive would never have existed. If God loves people in general, the best thing she could have done for people in general would have been to create a perfect world for them to live in. But if God loves particular people — the particular people who now exist — the best thing she could have done for those particular people is to create a world filled with all the evils necessary for their existence — in other worlds, the best thing God could do for us is to create the very world which now exists. God could have done better; but God could not have done better for us, only for other people. (God certainly could have made the world differently so one particular person's life was better, and almost everyone else's the same — but God cannot create a world in which all of our lives are better, for in such a world none of us would have ever been born.) So, in other words, this kind of god has no problems with allowing wars, genocides and plagues to ravage humanity, as long as the end product is just right for his or her tastes.

This can be seen in a sense as a Nietzschean theodicy, in that it is an application to theodicy of what Nietzsche says in Thus Spake Zarathustra:

"Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, 'You please me, happiness! Abide moment!' then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants—eternity."

Another version of this objection might be that we as created creatures really have no right to complain about God creating evil, for without evil we would not exist — in other words, when we are complaining about God creating evil, what we are really objecting to is our own existence, for the evil God creates is necessary to our own existence. In this view, we ought to be thankful to God for all the evil that he has ever made.

Of course, this kind of theodicy still has trouble to account for the fact that an omnipotent god could have simply created a set of humans in exactly the way he or she wanted them to be, without exposing past generations to needless suffering. And if past evils were necessary for our existence, no human would have a right to complain about any injustice that might benefit future generations - after all, it's just as likely that the set of humans god really wants to exist is not the current generation, but some future one. This formulation of theodicy also runs into some problems when it comes to daily application by anyone other than God. When you steal someone's television, it does no good to tell them that you only did it because you have a special love for the person he would be without a television.

At this point, you may hear the more fundamentalist sorts fall back on original sin. See that article for more.

[edit] Warning theodicy

Evil exists because God is being nice to us and is warning us about hell (this is Ray Comfort’s theodicy).[17] Despite being omnipotent, God is unable or unwilling to give a clear and unambiguous warning; he just hurts us in various ways and hopes we get the message about the terrible suffering he could inflict on us hereafter.

[edit] Evil being the absence of God

Main article: Evil is the absence of God

[edit] Mysterious ways theodicy

Some theists argue that mankind is unable to comprehend God's infinite power and perspective, which works in a mysterious way after our deaths to somehow transform previous suffering. Specifically, they suggest that Heaven (or whatever flavour of salvation they ascribe to) is so radically transformative that our preceding existence is changed into a thing of wonder and beauty, in the same way that some unpleasant experiences in our everyday lives are remembered fondly or with pleasure when viewed in perspective.

Wonderfully, this argument ("Well, God just fixes it somehow") can work for any philosophical problem or discussion, and makes critical thinking blissfully redundant.

[edit] Quotes

  • "Why did he not answer the prayers of the imprisoned, of the helpless? And when he heard the lash upon the naked back of the slave, why did he not also hear the prayer of the slave? And when children were sold from the breasts of mothers, why was he deaf to the mother's cry?" -- Robert G. Ingersoll[18]
  • "Injustice upon earth renders the justice of of heaven impossible." -- Robert G. Ingersoll
  • "I think that if there were a God, there would be less evil on this earth. I believe that if evil exists here below, then either it was willed by God or it was beyond His powers to prevent it. Now I cannot bring myself to fear a God who is either spiteful or weak. I defy Him without fear and care not a fig for his thunderbolts." -- Marquis de Sade [19]
  • "Why do earthquakes, forest fires, hurricanes, tsunamis exist? Surely an all-powerful God could have created a nice Earth for his 'precious creations' without all this nonsense going on. Without God creating the United States Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans would still be going strong. Did God have something against New Orleans?" -- anon
  • "If someone evil breaks someone else's arm, why does God take so long to heal it?" -- anon

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. see the six web pages of
  2. J. Matthew Ashley, "Reading the universe story theologically: the contribution of a biblical narrative imagination", Theological studies, 2010, vol. 71, no. 4, pp. 870—902 — In classical terms, this is to broach the problem of theodicy: how to think about God in the face of the presence of suffering in God's creation. After God's dethronement as the subject of history, the question rebounds to the new subject of history: the human being. As a consequence, theodicy becomes anthropodicy — justifications of our faith in humanity as the subject of history, in the face of the suffering that is so inextricably woven into the history that humanity makes. Mutatis mutandis, the universe story brings with it the need for a "cosmodicy." How do we think about the presence of suffering, on a massive scale, in the story of the cosmos, particularly when the cosmos itself is understood to be the subject of history? How do we justify our faith in the cosmos?
  3. See Dr. Kreeft's argument here
  4. and this article from the Christian Research institute
  5. All About God's Responses to the Problem of Evil
  6. William Lane Craig's justification
  7. Some of the most common are here
  8. Debating religion: The evidential problem of good and its implications
  10. See also determinism.
  11. Subject to change of definition of the word "valuable"
  12. See his The Happy Life; Answer to Sceptics; Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil, Soliloquies
  13. See J.L. Mackie, Antony Flew, David Lewis, Michael Tooley, and others
  14. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy Section: 4c 2
  15. This can be defended through reduction to absurdity; if an omniscient entity's knowledge is flawed, it could "know" falsehoods like 1 + 1 = 4, where all the symbols retain their common meanings.
  16. IEP: 4c 1
  18. Robert Ingersoll, 1899
  19. WikiQuote on Marquis de Sade
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