Summary of “The Problem of Evil”

The “problem of evil” is thought to be one of the most difficult for theists. Why? Put simply 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 can’t advance
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, so do we really need Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and Huntington’s and ebola 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? 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 also 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. Finally, if evil results from freedom and there is no evil in heaven, then we aren’t free in heaven.

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, seeing children die 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. (Darwin was moved by this argument.) If you look at 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.)

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5 thoughts on “Summary of “The Problem of Evil”

  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.

  2. I think most humans believe in gods out of fear alone. If we are made by god(s) and in their control there is no limit to the torture they can inflict in this world and the next. So you are left with a hard choice. To take your chances that there is no god, there is no god that is paying attention to you or that it’s worth the risk to stand your ground for your own belief in compassion and love and reject any god that can only be a cruel demiurge in our eyes. I’ve taken on this last one. I reject any creator that would create such a world and I’m willing, finally to take that risk. The best feelings in me tell me that I should take this route. Most of my life I was too afraid to do it.

    Maybe the best we can hope for is that the atheist community is correct and there is no god and we disappear at death or maybe something even better in that we are supposed to reject this demonic world and it’s supposed creator and it’s just been a little test to see if we are ready or worthy of some real freedom. I find a lot of reasons to believe that is unlikely however but why not believe that when in reality if we are honest there is no way to know what any of this means? It could all be a simulation and we put ourselves though this madness as a game that is just temporary and not a true material reality. Maybe we are the gods creating this just as entertainment because we know it’s not the final reality and soon enough we will be laughing at the drama we have caused ourselves. Or it’s something better or worse. No way to know.

    I figure this however. Since one cannot know anything for sure why not follow your heart/gut feelings and just take that as the very best one can do in dealing with all this? That’s where I’ve finally landed on my best days and I work on staying with it because the alternative is truly horrible to a degree I’m glad I couldn’t imagine until very late in my life.

    Best of luck to any others of you who have your eyes opened to the seeming horror and cannot just turn away ever again as much as you might wish you could. I know what you are going through. As a last thought I remember that many of the stoics I admire said that the door is always open. If it becomes too much to bear I plan on making use of that one true freedom that the “gods” have left open to us. That is if there is such a thing as freedom. The rabbit hole doesn’t seem to have a bottom and as PKD said in his book that deals with all this (VALIS), “The Empire never ended”. Good luck brothers and sisters.

  3. ” Finally, if evil results from freedom and there is no evil in heaven, then we aren’t free in heaven.”

    Love that. This argument completely destroys the simpleton’s argument : “Why the world is so messed up? Why, it’s because we have free will!”.

    “The idea that evil is necessary for the development of moral character.”.

    This is interesting. It is obviously another lame and weak excuse. I remember when I was very small, my parents were fighting each other. Never beyond certain limits, though, I mean fortunately none of them were crazy. But I really hated it. In one particular instance, I clearly remember howmy father slapped my mom (not very hard, but obviously my mom felt violated. I remember her crying and her expression of sadness, as if she had been betrayed). Now, I have a memory of me doing something mean to my mother (I threw my rocking horse against her, for absolutely no reason: my mom loved me dearly every day, especially when I was a child). Again, I remember the same expression of sadness and betrayal on her face.

    But here’s the thing, I don’t remember if this happened before or after the other incident (the slap). My theory is that it has happened afterwards. This theory that we possibly learn evil from others (although I do believe it can also be innate), I was reading about cats. These animals can be very friendly and funny, but if you have ever seen what they do with a little mouse, you’ll know what I mean. I was reading somewhere that the reason why they do these things to mouses, and seem to have fun, in a sadistic way , is because they learn it from other cats.

    But if so, where did the first cat who started doing these things, learned it from?

    Then you have the excellent example of the Stanford Prison Experiment (what Zimbardo called the Lucifer Effect).

    So it seems like the problem of evil is far beyond the simpletons who say that it’s because of free will, etc.

    (As for my parents, after a few weeks of ugly fights, something incredible happened: they never fought again, probably because they realized I had watched them. Not only that, their relationship improved drastically every passing year, until they seemed to completely love and respect each other. ).


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