The classic problem of evil is an issue only in certain monotheistic religions like Judaism and Christianity which assume the existence of a perfectly good (benign), all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient) creator God. In short, the question posed is, “If God is benign, omnipotent, and omniscient, why is there evil in the world?

In religions where God is not necessarily perfectly good, or all-powerful, or all-knowing, the problem does not arise. In early Judaism, for instance, God is sometimes said to cause evils (hardening Pharoah’s heart, tempting David to conduct a sinful census), and even to repent (the Flood). But Judaism eventually evolved to insist on a perfectly good God. Then it was argued that evil stemmed from some rival being, like Satan. However, if Satan can exercise his power independently of God’s will, then God is not all-powerful. If Satan acts merely as an agent for God’s will, the problem of evil remains: how does God want Satan to commit evils that he himself would not be willing to commit? If God is perfectly good, he should be unable to commit or create evil. Evil is contrary to his nature.

The problem has two branches: Physical and Moral.

Physical:

Question: If God is good and created the world we live in, why does it contain such evils as disease, death, floods, fire, and earthquakes?

Answers/arguments:

  • Such things are not evil in themselves, but only in our perception of them.
    • Argument:
      What appears to human beings to be evil is merely the necessary by-product of the nature of things. If we could see things from the point of view of God we would understand their purpose and accept them as ultimately good.
    • Objections:
      • This argument merely evades the question by pronouncing it unanswerable in our present state of existence. It is the equivalent of the parental “You’ll understand when you grow up.”
      • This argument is non-Biblical, in that it ignores the fact the Scriptures clearly present early death, disease, earthquakes, and other disasters as evils which are inflicted on sinners.
  • Such evils make up a larger good.
    • Argument:
      Things which appear to us evil are in fact necessary components of a larger good. If there were no death, the earth would become wretchedly overcrowded. A child who freezes to death in the snow is suffering an unfortunate side-effect of weather which provides the water to sustain millions of lives. God has created the best world that he could (or he could be accused of weakness or deliberate evil). A painting’s dark patches contribute to its over-all beauty.
    • Objections:
      This was a common argument among the “philosophical optimists” Voltaire so strenuously opposed. It is open to many objections.

This is a circular argument which simply states that things are as they have to be. Since we are positing an omniscient creator, why did he not create a world in which that which is good does not produce evil by-products? Since Christianity maintains that miracles do occur, the argument that the laws of nature require that children who find themselves lost in a snowstorm must necessarily freeze to death is invalid. Since God is said to have intervened frequently in the operation of the laws of nature to reward or punish humans, clearly he could do so on a regular basis. Indeed, the real question is, why does he not do so regularly?

Who determines what is the larger good? How important is it that volcanoes be allowed to erupt, often destroying the lives of innocent people who happen to live near them? If even the fall of a single sparrow is of concern to God, why should he endorse mere natural phenomena over the continued existence of human beings?

If this is the best of all possible worlds, why is it so easy to imagine better ones? In any case, the Bible clearly depicts this world as having degenerated after the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The world is neither as good as it once was nor as good as it is promised to be at the end of time.

Voltaire ridiculed the painting analogy by saying that he might think a painting beautiful so long as he stood at a distance from it, but that once he had examined those dark patches filled with human suffering, disease, and death, he could no longer view it with the same enthusiasm. In any case, analogy is one of the weakest of all forms of argumentation: darkness is not the same thing as evil.

Moral:

Questions:The problem of moral evil may be divided into two separate questions:

Answers/arguments: 

  •  Why does God allow human beings to commit evils?
    • Argument:
      • God wanted humans to worship him freely, not to act automatically. The existence of free will necessarily requires the possibility of evil choices. God does not will evil; he simply creates humans who make evil choices.
    • Objections: Although this is often presented as a powerful argument, it is open to several objections.
      • If freedom is good in itself, and therefore necessary in a perfect world, it is not necessarily implied that choices must involve good and evil. One can choose freely between good alternatives without becoming a mere robot. In any case, this argument simply ignores the original question. We asked not what the purpose of evil is in the world, but from whence it comes?
      • Why does God require worship at all? If he is perfect, he should not need anyone to praise or adore him, certainly not flawed, deluded beings such as humans whose adoration can hardly be as rewarding as that of angels, who understand God much more fully and clearly.
      • If the freedom to choose to do evil is essential to determine who should be saved, will the saved in Heaven also be free to commit sins? If not, is their state to be judged inferior to our own? Clearly not. So why not skip the mortal phase of existence with all its suffering and sin altogether and proceed directly from creation to heaven?
      • If God knows all, he clearly knew before creating human beings that they would fall into sin. How can he be held innocent for sins which he knowingly made inevitable? Since we are told in the gospels that the majority of people go to Hell, God must knowingly have set up a system which is at least remarkably inefficient, if not actually wicked.
  • Why do evil things happen to good people (and good things often happen to evil people)?
    • Why do the good suffer and the evil prosper? This was the form in which the Bible first addressed the problem of evil, as the Jews reexamined their traditional doctrines that God rewards the pious with many children, prosperity,and long life, and curses the wicked with sterility, poverty, and and early death. This was so clearly often not the case, that the inconsistency seemed to demand an explanation. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes, each in its own way, pronounce it an unfathomable mystery. The author of Job seems to regard the very asking of the question as an affront to God. He puts forward all manner of detailed arguments for questioning God’s justice; but the deity refuses to reply to his accusations, telling Job only to sit down, shut up, and fear him.
    • Argument: 
      • Some argue that sufferings are inflicted on the good to test them, to allow them to prove their virtue.
    • Objection:
      • Why is such testing necessary or desirable? Will the saved in Heaven be similarly tested? Surely not, since Heaven is said to be free of suffering. If virtue can only be displayed in comparison with evil, then it would seem that God is either limited in his powers or imperfectly good.
    • Argument: 
      • As the Beatitudes state, those who suffer here on earth will be blessed in Heaven.
    • Objection:
      • This argument provides consolation, but no explanation. Why should the good have to suffer at all? Like many others “answers” to the problem of evil, it evades the basic question by stating that it is unanswerable in this life. Only in Heaven are there answers.

Logical Answers to the Problem of Evil

The problem of evil as classically stated is probably insoluble, but people who ponder it deeply typically come to one of the following conclusions:

  • God is not perfectly good.
  • God is not all-powerful.
  • God is not all-knowing.
  • God does not exist.
  • This is a mystery. It is a mistake even to ask the question.

Saint Augustine attempted to deal with this issue by denying the actual existence of moral evil. What we perceive as evil is, he argued, merely distance from God. Hell is the ultimate alienation from God.

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