The Problem of Evil

The problem of evil is for many people a significant intellectual and emotional obstacle to faith. The logical problem of evil attempts to show that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the existence of God. It then concludes God does not exist. This is one way of formulating it.

The Problem of Evil:

Premise 1: People suffer.

Premise 2: Suffering is evil.

Premise 3: An all good, all powerful and all knowing God would not allow evil.

Premise 4: Therefore, God cannot exist.

Conclusion: There is no God.

I will challenge three of the four premises of the problem of evil and will show it cannot be used to conclude God does not exist.  

Challenging premise 4 (God cannot exist): First of all, an all powerful, all knowing, and morally imperfect being would still be a god (notice the small ‘g’), just not the sort of god we would like. This god cannot be disproved by the problem of evil. So if we accept the other 3 premises it would run like this:

Premise 1: People suffer.

Premise 2: Suffering is evil.

Premise 3: An all powerful and all knowing god might allow evil to exist.

Premise 4: Therefore, a god might or might not exist.

Conclusion: A god could exist.

As a result, if (big IF) you accept the other three premises you still have not justified atheism. Some form of god could still exist, such as an indifferent god, an evil god, or an impotent god who is unable to prevent evil. However none of these gods would be the classical God of Christian theism, so in order to defend Christianity we must challenge some of the other premises within the problem of evil.

Challenging premise 2 (suffering is evil): Premise 2 assumes we have correct moral knowledge. It assumes we know for an absolute fact that suffering is evil in a universal and absolute sense, which makes the existence of God impossible. I personally dislike suffering but I cannot prove it is evil. All I can say with certainty is I dislike suffering. To illustrate this better, imagine somebody disliked snakes. The idea “because snakes exist God cannot exist” is absurd. I have much stronger intuitions about suffering being evil than I might about snakes. However it is unclear how I could prove suffering is evil in a way that makes God’s existence impossible. The argument would now go:

Premise 1: People suffer.

Premise 2: I dislike suffering, but it may or may not be evil.

Premise 3: An all good, all powerful and all knowing God would not allow evil to exist.

Premise 4: Therefore, if God does exist he has only allowed the existence of something I dislike.

Conclusion: 1. God might/could exist and 2. The world contains things within it that I dislike.

Further, the traditional theistic view of good and evil is that God and morality are interlinked; God cannot do evil and everything he does is good. As a result, an atheist would need to prove the existence of God independent of morality, which is something most theists will not accept, and then prove suffering is evil in order to prove premise 2. This seems to be a mammoth, and probably impossible task.

Challenging premise 3 (an all good, all powerful and all knowing God would not allow evil): This is the premise most traditional theodicies (justifications for evil) and defenses attempt to challenge. There are various different attempts at these but there are two major ones generally considered to be reasonably successful. They are the Free Will Defense and the Irenaean Theodicy.

The freewill defense highlights “because we have free will we can choose to do good or evil” (Alvin Plantinga is a key proponent of this defense). God gives us free will because he wants us to enter into a relationship with him freely. He wants friends, sons, daughters, etc. He does not want mindless robots who have no choice but to love him. As a result when evil occurs, it is not God’s fault. Blame a murderer for his crimes; not God. This seems to be reasonable and is widely accepted within the theological and philosophical world. One weakness with this is it would not explain ‘natural evil’. Natural evils are things like earthquakes and disease. There does not seem to be a human choice here and this seems to pose difficulties for the free will defense. One possible response to this is God could have made other beings with free will, such as Satan and demons, and they might be to blame in some way.

The Irenaean theodicy suggests suffering provides an opportunity for us to morally and emotionally grow. When we feel pain ourselves we are more likely to empathize and help others when we see them in pain. This would mean our sense of morality is our own; it was not programmed into us. Instead we grew it and chose to have it. When you look at people who go into healthcare, a great many of them have chosen to help people because they can empathize with them. This may in part be due to their own experiences of suffering in the past. This has meant they have grown into the sort of caring people they are who then dedicate their lives to helping others. God would approve of these people! As a result, it is suffering that allows us to actually practice what we preach and develop the virtues that Jesus (for Christians) exemplified. This theodicy much better explains natural evil, however, there are cases where it is hard to see whether any growth has occurred, and often the level of suffering seems excessive. As a result, it can be very difficult to emotionally accept.

The two theodicies are in no way incompatible and it could be that some evil is explained by free will and some evil is explained by the Irenaean theodicy. Personally, I agree with this view and I suspect the answer is both. Perhaps there are other reasons we have not discovered and considered but these two theodicies are generally seen as reasonably successful. Even if we think there are problems with them, they highlight the logical possibility that a good God might allow evil. As a result, the problem of evil should be more like this:

Premise 1: People suffer.

Premise 2: Suffering is evil.

Premise 3: An all good, all powerful and all knowing God might allow evil to exist.

Premise 4: Therefore, God could exist.

Conclusion: God could exist.

I have now challenged three of the four premises of the problem of evil. If we put all of my points together this is what we can say about the problem of evil:

Premise 1: People suffer.

Premise 2: I dislike suffering, but it may or may not be evil.

Premise 3: An all good, all powerful and all knowing God might allow suffering to exist.

Premise 4: Therefore, God or a god could exist.

Conclusion: God or a god could exist.

To put it simply, all we can say is the world contains things we dislike and God may or may not exist.

Generally speaking, the problem of evil is now what is called a probabilistic debate, which basically says the existence of evil makes God less likely. To some extent I agree with this idea, but I think the arguments above show suffering does not have an impact upon God’s likelihood to a huge extent. The other thing to remember is we do not judge the likelihood of the existence of God on the basis of one argument. We also need to remember all of the arguments in favor of the existence of God. These include the cosmological argument, the ontological argument, the teleological and cosmic fine tuning arguments, the argument from religious experience and miracles, and the reliability of the New Testament (to name just a few). This has led philosophers such as Richard Swinburne to conclude God’s existence is likely and belief in God is entirely reasonable and justifiable, to which I heartily agree!