Theists’ God and the Problem of Evil


Does God exist? This is a fundamental question, one which most of us ask ourselves at some time in our lives. The answer which each of us gives affects not only the way we behave, but also how we understand and interpret the world, and what we expect for the future, If God exists, then human existence may have a purpose, and we may even hope for eternal life. If not, then we must create any meaning in our lives for ourselves: no meaning will be given to them from outside, and death is probably final.

When philosophers turn their attention to religion they typically examine the various arguments that have been given for and against God’s existence. They weigh up the evidence and look closely at the structure and implications of the arguments. They also examine concepts such as faith and belief to see if they can make sense of the way people talk about God.

The starting point for most philosophy of religion is a very general doctrine about the nature of God, Known as Theism. This is the view that one God exists, that he or she is omnipotent (capable of doing anything), omniscient (knows everything), and supremely benevolent (all-good). Such a view is held by most Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Here the focus will be on Christian view of God, though most of the arguments will apply equally to the other Theistic religions, and some  will be relevant to any religion.

The problem of Evil

There is evil in the world: this cannot seriously be denied. Think only of Pol pot’s massacres in Cambodia, or of the widespread practice of torture. There are all examples of moral evil or cruelty: human beings inflicting suffering on other human beings, for whatever reason. Cruelty is also often inflicted upon animals. There is also a different kind of evil, known as natural or metaphysical evil: earthquakes, disease, and famine are examples of this sort of evil.

Natural evil has natural causes, though it may be worsened by human incompetence or lack of care. “Evil” may not be the most appropriate word to describe such natural phenomena, which give rise to human suffering, because the word is usually used to refer to deliberate cruelty. However, whether we label it “natural evil”, or choose another name for it, the existence of such things as disease and natural disaster certainly has to be accounted for if we are to maintain a belief in a benevolent God.

earthquakeIn view of the existence of so much evil, how can anyone seriously believe in the existence of an all-good God? An all-knowing God would know that evil exists; an all-powerful God would be able to prevent it occurring; and an all-good God would not want it to exist. But evil continues to occur. This is the Problem of Evil: the problem of explaining how the alleged attributes of God can be compatible with this undeniable fact of evil. This is the most serious challenge to belief in the Theist’s God. The problem of evil has led many people to reject belief in God altogether, or at least to revise their opinion about God’s supposed benevolence, omnipotence, or omniscience.

Theists have suggested a number of solutions to the Problem of Evil, three of which we will consider here.

Attempted solutions to the Problem of Evil

Saintliness and its criticism:

Some people have argued that though the presence of evil in the world is clearly not a good thing, it is justified because it leads to greater moral goodness. Without poverty and disease, for instance, Mother Teresa’s great moral goodness in helping the needy would not have been possible. Without war, torture, and cruelty, no saints or heroes could exist. Evil allows the supposedly greater good of this kind of triumph over human suffering. However such a solution is open at least two objections. First, The degree and extent of suffering is far greater than would be necessary to allow saints and heroes to perform their acts of great moral goodness. It is extremely difficult to justify the horrific deaths of several million people in Nazi concentration camps using this argument. Besides, much of this suffering goes unnoticed and unrecorded, and so cannot be explained in this way: in some cases the suffering individual is the only person capable of moral improvement in such a situation, and this improvement would be highly unlikely to occur in cases of extreme pain.

Second, it is not obvious that a world in which great evil exists would be preferable to one in which there was less evil and as a result fewer saints and heroes. Indeed, there is something offensive, for example, about trying to justify the agony of young child dying of an incredible disease by arguing that this allows those witnessing it to become morally better people. Would an all-good God really use such methods to aid our moral development?

paintingArtistic analogy and its criticism:

Some people have claimed that there is an analogy between the world and a work of art. Overall harmony in a piece of music usually involves discords which are subsequently resolved; a painting typically has large areas of darker as well as of lighter pigment. In a similar way, so the argument goes, evil contributes to the overall harmony or beauty of the world. This view is also open to at least two objections.

First, it is just difficult to believe. For instance, it is hard to understand how somebody dying in agony on a barbed-wire fence in no-man’s-land in the Battle of Somme could be said to have been contributing to the overall harmony of the world. If the analogy with a work of art is really the explanation of why God permits so much evil, then this is almost an admission that evil cannot satisfactorily be explained since it puts the understanding of evil beyond a merely human comprehension. It is only from God’s viewpoint that the harmony could be observed and appreciated. If this is what it means when Theists say that God is all-good, then it is a very different use of the word
“good” from our usual one.

Second, a God who allows such suffering for merely aesthetic purposes — in order to appreciate it in the way one appreciate a work of art — sounds more like a sadist than the all-good deity described by Theists. If this is the role suffering plays, then it makes God comfortably close to the psychopath who throws a bomb into a crowd in order to admire the beautiful patterns created by the explosion and the blood. For many people this analogy between a work of art and the world would be more successful as an argument against God’s benevolence, rather than for it.

The Free Will Defence:

By far the most important attempt at a solution to the Problem of Evil is the Free Will Defence. this is the claim that God has given human beings free will: the ability to choose for ourselves what to do. If we did not have free will we would be like robots, or automata, with no choices of our own. Those who accepted the Free Will Defence argue that it is a necessary consequence of having free will that we should have the possibility of doing evil; otherwise it would not genuinely be free will. They tell us that a world in which human beings have free will which sometimes leads to evil is preferable to one in which human action is predetermined, one in which we would be like robots, programmed only to perform good actions. Indeed, if we were preprogrammed in this way, we could not even call our actions morally good since moral goodness depends on having a choice about what we do. Again, there are a number of objections to this proposed solution.

Criticisms of the Free Will Defence
It makes two basic assumptions:

The main assumption that the Free Will Defence make is that a world with free will and the possibility of evil is preferable to a world of robot-like people who never perform evil actions. But is this obviously so? Suffering can be so terrible that no doubt that many people , given the choice, would prefer everyone to have been pre-programmed only to do good, rather than have to undergo such pain. These pre-programmed beings could even have been designed so that they believed they had free will even though they didn’t: they could have had the illusion of free will with all the benefits that follow from thinking that they are free, but with none of the drawbacks.

This hints at a second assumption that the Free Will Defence makes, namely that we do actually have free will and not just an illusion of it. Some psychologists believe that we can explain every decision or choice that an individual makes by referring to some earlier conditioning that the individual has undergone, so that although the individual might feel free, his or her action is in fact entirely determined by what has happened in the past. We cannot know for certain that this isn’t actually the case.

However, it should be pointed out in the Free Will Defence’s favour that most philosophers believe that human beings genuinely do have free will in some sense, and that free will is generally considered essential to being human.

Free will but no evil:

If God is omnipotent, then presumably it is within his or her powers to have created a world in which there was both free will and yet no evil. In fact such a world is not particularly difficult to imagine. Although having free will always gives us the possibility of performing evil, there is no reason why this should ever become an actuality. It is logically possible that everyone could have had free will but decided always to shun the evil course of behaviour.

those who accept the Free Will Defence would probably reply to this that such a state of affairs would not be genuine free will. This is open to debate.

warGod could intervene:

Theists typically believe that God can and does intervene in the world, primarily by performing miracles. If God intervenes sometimes, why does he or she choose to perform what can seem to a non-believer relatively minor “tricks” such as producing stigmata (marks on people’s hands, like the nail holes on Christ’s hands), or changing water into wine? Why didn’t God intervene to prevent the Second World War or the AIDS epidemic.

Again, Theists might reply that if God ever intervened then we would not have genuine free will. But this would be to abandon an aspect of most Theists’ belief in God, namely that divine intervention sometimes occurs.

Doesn’t explain natural evil:

A major criticism of the Free Will Defence is that it can at best only justify the existence of moral evil, evil brought about directly by human beings. There is no conceivable connection between having free will and the existence of such natural evil as earthquakes, disease, volcanic eruptions and so on, unless one accepts some kind of doctrine of the Fall whereby Adam and Eve’s betrayal of God ‘s trust is supposed to have brought all the different sorts of evil on the world. The doctrine of the Fall makes human beings responsible for every form of evil in the world. However, such a doctrine would only be acceptable to someone who already believed in the existence of the Judaeo-Christian God..

There are other more plausible explanations of natural evil, one of which is that the regularity in the laws of nature has a great overall benefit which outweighs the occasional disasters that it gives rise to.

Beneficial laws of nature:

Without regularity in nature our world would be mere chaos, and we would have no way of predicting the results of any of our actions. If, for instance, footballs only sometimes left our feet when we kicked them, sometimes simply sticking to them, then we would have great difficulty predicting what was going to happen on any particular occasion when we went to kick a ball. Lack of regularity on other aspects of the world might make life itself impossible. Science, as well as everyday life, relies upon there being a great deal of regularity in nature, similar causes tending to produce similar effects.

It is sometimes argued that because this regularity is usually beneficial to us, natural evil is justified since it is just an unfortunate self-effect of laws of nature continuing to operate in a regular way. the overall beneficial effects of this regularity are supposed to outweigh the detrimental ones. But this argument is vulnerable in at least two ways.

First, it does not explain why an omnipotent God couldn’t have created laws of nature which would never actually lead to any natural evil. A possible response to this is that even God is bound by the laws of nature; but this suggests that God is not really omnipotent.

Second, It still fails to explain why God doesn’t intervene to perform miracles more often. If it is argued that he or she never intervenes, then a major aspect of most Theists’ belief in God is taken away.volcano

Source: Philosophy: The Basics, by: Nigel Warburton