The Problem of Evil in Two Pages

The existence of bad or evil things isn’t hard to explain for non-theists—human beings and the world are imperfect—but they are hard to explain for classical theists.

The Problem – The gods are all-good, powerful, and knowing and yet there is evil. Thus either the gods can’t do away with evil—in which case they’re not all-powerful; or they won’t do away with evil—in which case they’re not all good. We can distinguish between:

a) The logical problem of evil – gods and evil are incompatible or inconsistent; and
b)The evidentiary problem of evil – evil counts as evidence against the gods.

Response to the problem – Theists have articulated defenses, but generally dismiss theodicies (complete explanations for evil.) A defense is easy, you just need to show that it is rational to believe in gods and evil simultaneously. A theodicy is hard, it must show how evil fits into a god’s plan. Most theologians think that the best we can do is to show that evil and the gods are compatible;  but they don’t believe they can completely explain evil. In order to defend the rationality of religious belief—to offer a strong defense—philosophers/theologians try to provide reasons for the existence of evil. These include:

1. The ideas that pain/evil is necessary as part of the body’s warning system

PROBLEMS – Sometimes we need warnings but there is no pain (carbon monoxide, obesity, etc.); sometimes the pain doesn’t help us (cancer, etc.); sometimes pain may be debilitating. Furthermore, why would gods create pain? What explains such cruelty?

2.  The idea that evil is necessary so that we may better appreciate the good – (Logically this implies that we would have no notion of bad without good, or tall without short. Psychologically this implies that we wouldn’t appreciate good things with bad things, pleasure without pain, and happiness without unhappiness. )

PROBLEMS – Even if this is true, why do we need so much evil? We have cancer and heart disease, do we really need Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s too? And do you really need to know there are bad things to enjoy good things? (If you believe in heaven or paradise where supposedly you are eternally happy, would you need occasional pain there to appreciate its goodness?)

3. The idea that evil is punishment from wrongdoing; we bring it on ourselves

PROBLEMS – This makes sense only if moral character and suffering correlate. But misfortune/evil strikes indiscriminately, as does good fortune. Moreover, do babies deserve misfortune? Do we deserve horrible diseases? Do we deserve cancer? Can one ever do enough bad things to deserve say, everlasting punishment?

4. The idea that evil results from free will – Evil results from free will. A world with humans, and the evil that results from their free will, is better than one without humans even if that world had no evil. War, murder, torture, etc. are worth the price of the positives that derive from human free will.

PROBLEMS – We can answer that free will is not worth all the misery that ensues from free choice. In addition, we might wonder why an omnipotent god couldn’t create humans with the freedom to do bad things, but who never do them. Moreover, free will, if it even exists, only accounts for moral evil (evils attributed to free will like murder, rape, etc.) but not physical evil (earthquakes, floods, disease, etc) which have nothing to do with free will.

5. The idea that evil is necessary for the development of moral character. In a world without “trials and tribulations” we wouldn’t get to develop our moral characters or make our souls. Such a world wouldn’t elicit generosity, courage, kindness, mercy, perseverance, creativity, etc.

If the moral character development argument is combined with the free will defense then we have given the best account of evil possible. This is not a theodicy—a complete explanation—but a defense—a partial explanation. We could even add that since there is another world evil here is no big deal anyway. That is, all this pain will be insignificant when we all enjoy eternal bliss. Of course even if we can overcome the problem of evil that doesn’t mean the theistic story is true.

PROBLEMS –At least three basic problems remain in our attempt to reconcile evil and all good, all-knowing and all-powerful gods.

1) Why don’t the gods intervene to prevent extreme cruelty—such as the abuse of an innocent child? The free will defense is implausible here.

2) Why is there so much human suffering? Do we really need all these hurricanes and diseases? Do we really need to develop our characters by, for example, accidentally killing children or suffering from cancer? And even if we need to occasionally die in childbirth or from cancer, couldn’t we have fewer cases of this evil?

3) Why do non-human animals suffer so much? They don’t have freedom or need to develop their moral characters, yet they suffer. If you look about the entire world, and the entire history of the world, does the evidence suggest that it is the product of all good, all powerful, deities? Or does the evidence suggest the opposite? At the very least, doesn’t evil provide evidence against the existence of such gods? Of course it does.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

One thought on “The Problem of Evil in Two Pages

  1. It may be worth noting that not all theists have a problem with explaining evil. In older religions gods were more “human” in nature and some were evil, or did weird things for example.

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