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Problem of Evil

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The so-called problem of evil is a topic of much debate in theology and the philosophy of religion. Many atheists base their views to some degree on their assessment of this argument's strength:

God is, according to accounts given by the holy texts of most monotheistic religions, omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

  1. An omniscient being knows all the true propositions, including those which describe all the evil that exists.
  2. A benevolent person seeks to prevent evil from befalling others, to the extent that he or she knows of it and can do something about it (ought implies can), and an omnibenevolent being never strays from this goal.
  3. However, an omnipotent being has the power to prevent evil from befalling persons.
  4. Given 1, 2 and 3, we would expect that God should prevent evil from occurring. However, we know evil occurs from time to time.
  5. Therefore, God lacks at least one trait usually ascribed to Him or else does not exist at all.

Is the Argument Sound?

As with all logical arguments, we must ask if the premises of the "argument from evil" are true. If one or more premise is false, then an argument does not constitute a good reason for believing its conclusion.

The argument can be dismissed if one is willing to drop one or more of its premises: that God is omniscient, that God is omnipotent, that God is omnibenevolent, or that evil exists.

Rejecting omnipotence:

If God is not all powerful, then his ability to constrain all evil in any given moment is limited.

Rejecting Omnibenevolence:

If God is not all good, then evil may exist.

Rejecting the existence of evil:

Perhaps evil does not exist - a view taken by Augustine who classified evil as a privation. Perhaps we call those things we do not like 'moral evils' without justification. But it strikes at the heart of our intuitions about what it means for something to be morally wrong if something like the torture of innocent children would not count.

Also, rejecting the existence of evil would appear to contradict Scripture: I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these [things]. (Isaiah 45:7, KJV)

Although denying any one of the premises is sufficient to deflate the argument, such a move is not likely to satisfy a theist who wants to preserve the rationality of believing in the God as described in scripture. Thus, most theists do not attempt such a strategy.

Is the Argument Logically Valid?

If a deductive argument is valid, the conclusion must be true if the premises are true. If it turns out that the conclusion is false while all the premises are true, then one has exposed an "argument" as invalid. Many theists think the argument from evil is logically invalid, meaning that the conclusion (God does not exist) does not necessarily follow from the premises (which theists tend to accept as true).

One who objects to the conclusion along these lines might say something like the following:

If the allowance of some evil serves a greater good, then the allowance of that evil is not by itself inconsistent with the existence of an omnibenevolent God. In other words, it is possible that an event that we observe as "evil" is, invisible to us, an event which serves the greater good.

Theists point to many possible explanations, called theodicies, that attempt to show how some greater good is achieved by the allowance of some evil. Some common examples:

  • God allows evil in order to allow for soul-making - the process by which humans grow spiritually, from self-centered beings to moral beings who have compassion for others.
  • God allows evil because it is necessary for the existence of free will.
  • God allows evil so that we may come to see what life is like for human creatures when they have separate themselves from God and His will.

An atheist usually replies to such explanatory stories by reminding the theist that each story's plausibility depends on one already believing in God. Thus, using simple theodicies as arguments against the logical validity of the problem of evil amounts to circular reasoning, in which the claim to be proved is assumed true at the beginning. Circular reasoning does not imply the claim is false, but it is a logical error. Therefore, theodicies cannot give anyone more reason(s) to believe that God exists than they already possessed.

An alternative reply that a theist might offer attempts to compare the finite pains associated with human existence to the infinite bliss of heaven. Given that the reward for the faithful is immeasurable bliss for eternity, then any amount of finite pain caused in a finite time period is vanishingly irrelevant.

A likely reply to this like of objection is that such a calculus illegitimately treats human persons as objects that can be manipulated to one's own ends so long as one returns the favor at a later date. It is utterly implausible that a person would be justified in enslaving another for a year, even if their plan was to give the victim a billion dollars in compensation afterwards. To treat a human in such a way is to lack respect for humanity's essential nature: we are autonomous moral agents who are ends in ourselves, rather than means to ends.

Free Will

The twentieth century saw the rise of a "reformed" philosophy of religion, spearheaded primarily by Alvin Plantinga, a prominent professor at Notre Dame. Plantinga introduced, in his 1967 work God and Other Minds, a defense of theism that counters the argument of evil with several observations about freedom of will. Rather than trying to give a moral justification for evil, Plantinga prefers to establish only that the existence of God and evil are jointly possible.

Plantinga argues that God has a sufficient reason to allow some moral evil: only in this way can He make possible the greater moral good of human freedom. Thus, Plantinga opposes theological compatiblism - the view that God can allow human freedom and prevent moral evil. If he is right, theological compatiblism is incoherent; and could be likened to the claim that 'God can make a color that is bluer than blue.'

Plantinga's view hinges on the claim that even God cannot ensure free moral agents always do the right thing:

Suppose God creates an agent with the intent that this agent freely chooses good all the time. Now, if the agent is to freely choose some good, he must actually be free to choose it or to refrain from choosing it. Further suppose that there is a world - the world God wants to make actual - in which that agent does choose the good all the time. This world can only be made actual if its predecessor - a "world segment" that includes all of the world's states of affairs save the agent's choice - is first made actual (before it can be true that an agent chooses the right thing in a situation, the agent must be presented with the situation at hand). But if a world segment is made actual, then, if the agent is free with respect to the decision that must be made, God cannot control whether the agent will freely choose to do right or wrong. The upshot is that theological compatiblism must be false - for God to determine that an agent will do right all the time is inconsistent with that agent freely choosing to do right all the time. "God determines that an agent must freely choose to do right" is analogous to "God creates a married bachelor."

Plantinga furthers his defense in God, Freedom and Evil. If it is logically possible that all agents are depraved (will go wrong with respect to some action or other) in any world in which they exist, then it is logically possible that God could, no matter which agents he caused to exist, never create a world with human freedom and no moral evil.

He thinks there is no reason to question the possibility of "transworld depravity," and thus concludes that his defense fends off the problem of evil. Many philosophers - both theistic and atheistic - agree with this assessment[Who says?], although there is no settled consensus. The problem of evil will not likely go away so easily, as the matter of non-moral evils (diseases, predation and natural disasters, for instance) cannot be solved by Plantinga's defense alone.


  • Plantinga, Alvin: God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).
  • Plantinga, Alvin: God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing Co, 1977).

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