Why the problem of evil is still a problem

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Why the problem of evil is still a problem

The monotheistic religions have always struggled with the problem of evil: how could an all-powerful, compassionate God allow evil to exist? In this weekly comment, Timo Pieters argues that the problem is still unresolved.

This article was written by Timo Pieters and reflects his personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

What is the problem of evil?
One problem that all religious traditions of the world have wrestled with is why there is so much evil in the world. The problem of evil arises for any worldview that makes the following three assumptions: (1) a supreme being (God) exists, (2) this God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good, and (3) evil exists in the world. Evil here includes both moral evil (humans harming others) and natural evil (disease, disasters). The Greek philosopher Epicurus was perhaps the first to notice that if such a God is willing to prevent evil, but not able to, then he must be impotent (not all-powerful). If this God is able to prevent evil but not willing to, then he must be cruel (not perfectly good). If this God is both able and willing to remove evil, then how could evil still exist?[1] The argument is therefore that the existence of evil almost certainly proves that a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good does not and cannot exist.

Monotheistic theologians have made many attempts to square the existence of God with the existence of evil. These arguments are called ‘theodicies’, meaning that they ‘justify God’.[2] I will discuss three kinds of theodicies in this article, which are all based on the claim that God is morally justified in allowing evil to exist.[3]

The ‘soul-making’ theodicy: virtue requires evil to exist
The first kind of theodicy claims that people would not be able to develop virtues if there was no evil in the world, and that it is therefore morally justifiable for God to allow evil to exist.[4] [5] The problem with this is that it makes the universe look like a cruel science experiment in which God creates human beings with moral deficiencies, puts them in a world full of terrible conditions, and then lets them suffer horribly until they develop the virtues he wants them to have. Why could he not just create humans with his desired moral virtues? He is the creator after all.

Also, one would have to believe that God was morally justified in allowing the mass torture in Nazi and communist concentration camps, because this was somehow necessary for the spiritual development of the victims. One would likewise have to believe that God allows over a million deaths from preventable diarrhoea every year, because without this suffering they could not develop certain virtues.[6] It seems rather unlikely to me that gruesome torture and genocide are the only things that can bring about the moral transformation that God wants to see. Secondly, this view does not address the suffering of animals at all.

The ‘free will’ theodicy
The second kind of theodicy claims that a world in which God gives humans free will is better than a world in which God does not give them free will, because free will is morally very valuable.[7] It therefore implies that having free will, with the capacity to do evil, is more valuable than preventing the suffering that is caused by that evil.[8]

However, God could easily create humans with free will, but without the ability to harm others.[9] Also, just because free will is valuable, does not mean that it may never be limited by other people. Clearly we all believe that people who freely wish to rape or murder should be stopped by others. By extension, it would be good if God stopped people from harming each other unnecessarily, and he could easily do so. Yet the crimes continue every day.

Also, this theodicy does not explain the existence of natural evil, such as diseases and natural disasters. If evil only exists because it is an unavoidable consequence of free will, then one cannot explain evils that are not caused by free will. This also applies to the suffering of animals.

And finally, consider what free will in a theistic universe really means. Do you really have free will if you are created and owned by an all-powerful being who is reading your mind every moment of every day, and might torture you forever after death for having thoughts he disapproves of?

The Fall from the garden
Perhaps the most famous theodicy was proposed by St. Augustine.[10] He thought that evil was not created by God, since he can only create good things, and that evil is therefore just the absence of the good in a being or thing.[11] Since God created the world out of nothing, things have a natural tendency to return to this nothingness, unless they are deliberately sustained by God’s creative power. Evil is therefore caused by the tendency of things to return to nothingness.[12] The way this applies to humanity is that God permitted them to have a free will, which allows them to choose something lesser than God and therefore closer to nothingness.[13]

For Augustine, the first time this happened was in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve first chose to disobey God out of pride.[14] In other words, humanity chose itself over God. The only way this pride can be overcome is through God’s help (grace).[15] This divine grace comes through the figure of Jesus Christ, and if we accept his sacrifice, then our free will is saved from its addiction to sin, and we can enter paradise.[16] This means that, ultimately, God decides who will be saved and who will not.

There are multiple problems with his explanation. Firstly, while God did not create evil, he does punish souls for freely choosing it, and since he is all-knowing, he would have seen that coming.[17] Augustine thought that God could have prevented humanity from sinning, but that he made a conscious decision to allow it, in order to show the difference between the evil that comes from pride, and the good that comes from his grace.[18]

To my eyes, this makes Augustine’s argument boil down to the previous two theodicies: evil needs to exist in order to become virtuous, and free will is more important than the suffering it creates.

The problem of evil is unresolved
So far, I have not encountered any convincing argument for why evil could exist in a universe that is run by a compassionate, all-knowing, omnipotent being. For me, this is one of the primary reasons for thinking that such a being almost certainly does not exist.

Now, if such a being did exist, he would surely fit the definition of evil, since he willingly inflicts everlasting suffering on souls in hell. Yet he must have known beforehand which of the people that he created would misbehave and end up there. God would therefore surpass every serial killer in history in the size and scope of the suffering he inflicts.[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] 

This article was written by Timo Pieters and reflects his personal analyses and opinions, rather than those of EARS.

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[1] Problem of evil | Definition, Responses, & Facts. Epicurus as quoted by David Hume: “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?”

[2] Theodicy | theology

[3] The Problem of Evil (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): section 4.

[4] The Problem of Evil (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): section 7.1.

[5] This argument assumes that moral judgements can be applied to God at all, which some might disagree with, such as those who believe in ‘divine command’ theory.

[6] More than half a million children die from diarrhea each year. How do we prevent this?

[7] By free will I mean the power to control one’s own choices and actions. This implies that one is the source of one’s own actions. Free Will (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

[8] The Problem of Evil (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy): section 7.2.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Theodicy | theology.

[11] The Problem of Evil as Treated By St. Augustine, p. 33-35.

[12] Ibid, p. 37, 41.

[13] Ibid, p. 38-40.

[14] Ibid, p. 42.

[15] Ibid, p. 43.

[16] Saint Augustine (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

[17] Ibid, p. 38.

[18] Ibid, p. 47. As Augustine said: ‘For who will dare to believe or say that it was not in God’s power to prevent both angels and men from sinning? But God preferred to leave this in their power, and thus to show both what evil could be wrought by their pride, and what good by His grace.’