The Problem of Evil


The problem of evil is arguably the most powerful objection to the existence of an omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent being. It is indeed a very strong and persuasive argument. The problem of evil is perhaps more persuasive for emotional rather than intellectual reasons. One of the benefits of philosophy is to substitute emotional impetuosity with analytical reasoning in face of a problem. In light of this tradition, the following is the latest update as to where the dialogue concerning the problem of evil stands. Let the reader take note that the following is not intended to be a source of condolence. That is a job for counselors and preachers—not philosophers.

For many years, it was assumed that their existed an inherit contradiction between the classical characteristics of God (omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent), and the existence of evil. In particular, if God is good, then he wants to thwart evil. If God is all-knowing, then he is aware that evil exists. And if God is all-powerful, then he has the capacity to prevent evil. Yet evil exists. Therefore, God—so the argument goes—does not exist.

In face of this argument, largely through the work of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, a defense was presented. A defense is not intended to explain why God allows evil. Rather, a defense merely shows that their does not exist an inherit contradiction between the classical characteristics of God and the existence of evil.

Plantinga’s proposal is known as the free-will defense and takes the following form: God’s omnipotence only allows him to do what is logically possible. Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift? No; yet only because of the reasons just highlighted. Likewise, it is logically impossible for God to endow creatures with free will and ensure that they only do good deeds.

Although this explains away the existence of some evil, what about natural evils such as earthquakes, disease and typhoons? Plantinga’s defense states that although we don’t know why God permits evil, since he is good, we know he has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the existence of evil. The only kind of evil that is incompatible with the existence of God is gratuitous evil—evil that is not morally justified. Thus, the problem of evil is solved.

Most philosophers of religion agree that Plantinga’s free-will defense is sound. The beauty of the argument is that it neither assumes God exists nor does it attempt to explain why so much evil exists. Rather, it merely illustrates that the concept of God is compatible with the existence of evil. Nevertheless, the concept of God is incompatible with gratuitous evil. The conversation has now shifted to the evidential version of the problem of evil.

The evidential version of the problem of evil argues that the magnitude, distribution and duration of evil in the world makes the existence of gratuitous evil likely. Therefore, it is unlikely that an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being exists. In response to the evidential version of the problem of evil, various theodicies have been proposed. A theodicy attempts to explain why God allows the existence of certain kinds of evil. A theodicy is more difficult than a defense, since it has to account for why God allows certain types of evil at both local and global levels.

Multiple theodicies have been proposed. Some philosophers have argued that God permits the existence of evil in the world in order to bring about soul restoration. Others have proposed that, by the necessity of his nature, God has an obligation to make a great world. One type of great world is one that contains free agents and substitutionary atonement. Of course, what follows is a world that contains a large amount of suffering. Some have suggested that although the problem of evil decreases the probability of God existing, when integrated into the totality of evidence, the probability of an omnibenevolent being existing still weighs in God’s favor.

As emphasized earlier, the highlighted reasoning should not be used to cope with any personal problems. The reasoning purported is only meant to satisfy the intellect rather than the heart. Even if there was a rational explanation for why God allows evil, it would likely not sit well with our emotions. A rational explanation has yet to be fully developed, however. The conversation is still going on.

By Nathan Cranford


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Reasonable Faith

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