The Problem of Evil


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The logical problem of evil

This is the a priori argument that evil and the God of classical theism (as defined as omnibenevolent and omnipotent) cannot exist together.

Epicurus (ancient Greek philosopher, one of the first to formulate the problem of evil)

  1. Is God willing but not able to prevent evil? Then he isn’t omnipotent
  2. Is God is able to prevent evil but not willing? Then he isn’t omnibenevolent
  3. If God is both able and willing, then why is there evil?
  4. If God is neither able or willing then why call him God?

Mackie reformulated this argument into the ‘inconsistent triad’ which argued that the God of classical theism (omnipotent and omnibenevolence) cannot exist if evil exists. Either Omnipotence, omnibenevolence or evil must not exist, since all three are inconsistent. Omnipotence entails the power to eliminate evil. Omnibenevolence entails the motivation to prevent evil. Something cannot possibly exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it. Therefore if evil exists, an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God cannot exist. God could at most be omnibenevolent or omnipotent but not both. This is an a priori argument because the conclusion follows from a logical analysis of the definitions of the concepts ‘omnibenevolence’, ‘omnipotence’ and ‘evil’, without reference to experience.

P1. An omnipotent God has the power to eliminate evil.
P2. An omnibenevolent God has the motivation to eliminate evil.
P3. Nothing can exist if there is a being with the power and motivation to eliminate it.
C1. Evil, omnipotence and omnibenevolence thus form an inconsistent triad such that God (as classically defined) and evil cannot possibly co-exist.

This argument is then sometimes developed into an a posteriori argument by referencing our experience of evil and drawing the conclusion not just that God and evil cannot co-exist, but that since evil does exist God does not exist:

P4. We experience evil in the world.
C2. Evil exists, therefore God does not exist.

Whether in its a priori or a posteriori form, the logical problem of evil is deductive. If its premises are true, its conclusion must be true.

The Evidential problem of evil

This is the a posteriori argument that the evidence of evil in the world makes belief in God unjustified. There is a logical possibility that evil and a perfect God exist together, but the evidence is against that possibility actually being true.

The crucial thing to understand about the evidential problem is that it is an inductive argument. It regards evil as evidence against God’s existence. It doesn’t try to claim that evil logically proves God’s non-existence. It makes the lesser, though arguably easier to defend claim, that evil makes belief in God unjustified.

Hume puts forward an evidential problem of evil. Hume is an empiricist and approaches the problem of evil as such. He points out the a posteriori evidence of evil in the world:

1 – Animal suffering. Why shouldn’t nature be created such that animals feel less pain, or indeed no pain at all?
2 – Creatures have limited abilities to ensure their survival and happiness
3 – Why does nature have extremes which make survival and happiness more difficult? Natural evil
4 – Why doesn’t God intervene to prevent individual natural disasters?

A God could have made this world without such evil, making it evidence against a perfect God existing. Hume says it is ‘possible’ that a perfect God exists but allows evil for reasons consistent with omnibenevolence, ‘but they are unknown to us’. Hume is arguing that whatever speculations theologians like Augustine and Irenaeus might invent about God’s ‘reasons’ for allowing evil, we have no evidence that God has such reasons.

“I conclude that however consistent the world may be … with the idea of such a God, it can never provide us with an inference to his existence.”

“There can be no grounds for such an inference when there are so many misfortunes in the universe, and while these misfortunes could—as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject—easily have been remedied. I am sceptic enough to allow that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such ·divine· attributes as you suppose; but surely they can never prove these attributes.” – Hume.

Hume, as an empiricist, insists that we are only justified in believing what the evidence suggests. The evidence of an imperfect world, while logically compatible with a perfect God, makes belief in a perfect God unjustified. You can’t infer perfect goodness from evil. An empirical inference from evil to belief in a perfectly good God is not valid.

P1. We are only justified in believing what the evidence suggests (empiricism).
P2. We only have evidence of imperfection (a world with both good and evil).
C1. We are only justified in believing that imperfection exists.
C2. So, belief in a perfectly good being is not justified.

The only justifiable route to belief in anything, including God, is through experience. Yet, experience shows us an imperfect world full of evil. So, because of evil, belief in God is not justified.

Augustine’s theodicy

Augustine’s theodicy was born from his contemplating the origin of sin. By observing himself and others, he thought humans had a natural predisposition to sin, which for him raised the question of where that came from, since it would seem contradict God’s omnibenevolence to suggest that God created it. He concluded that humanity must be to blame for it and looked to the Genesis story as an explanation.

The garden of Eden was a perfect place. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and as a punishment were banished to this earth often called a ‘fallen world’. This episode is referred to as ‘the Fall’. After their sin, God said Eve will now have pain in childbirth and Adam would have to ‘toil’ the land to make food.

Original Sin is the idea that the first sin of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s command resulted in a corruption in all humanity. Original sin is a corruption in human nature which makes people want to sin. All humans have inherited Original Sin from Adam and Eve according to Augustine as we were all ‘seminally present in the loins of Adam’. Augustine thought that the biological basis for procreation was “some sort of invisible and intangible power … located in the secrets of nature” yet then goes on to argue that all future generations of people are “in the loins of the father”. Augustine claims “We were all in [Adam] … we all were that one man who fell into sin” We existed in merely a “seminal nature from which we were to be begotten” but when that became “vitiated through sin” it became impossible for anyone to be born without original sin. This means that we are all born sinful beings who therefore deserve this punishment of living in a fallen world. God is not responsible for evil as it results from the free will of angels and humans. 

“All evil is either sin or a punishment for sin” – Augustine.

Augustine argued Evil does not actually exist. It is merely a privation of good, meaning it is the absence of Good. As humans fell away from God, we fell away from his goodness, resulting in what we mistakenly call ‘evil’. Evil has no ‘positive existence’, only a negative one. E.g. darkness does not actually exist, it’s merely the absence of light. Darkness is not a ‘thing’ but our minds trick us into thinking it is.

Augustine vs the logical problem of evil

The logical problem claims that it is impossible for God and evil to co-exist. Augustine’s theodicy claims that God allows evil because we deserve it. If the logical possibility of that claim can be defended, then Augustine will have defeated the logical problem of evil.

Original sin violates moral responsibility: It’s not ethical for all humanity to be blamed for the actions of Adam and Eve. This suggests an indefensible view of moral responsibility – that people can be responsible for actions committed by others which is of special absurdity in this case since the action occurred before they were even born.

Augustine is not actually arguing that God himself blamed all humanity for Adam’s sin, he’s merely pointing out that it was a factual consequence of Adam’s sin that all future humanity, in Adam’s loins, became infected with original sin. This made us into sinful beings from birth. So it’s not that we are being punished for the actions of our ancestors. We are being punished because we are sinful beings; because we have original sin.

It’s not our fault that we have original sin, so it still seems unfair and thus incompatible with omnibenevolence to suggest that we deserve punishment for it. Especially when considering cases like a child with cancer, it’s difficult to maintain that a child deserves cancer because it has original sin. Augustine would have to say that it is God’s justice for a child to get cancer and that God is still omnibenevolent despite allowing it. That is logically inconsistent with God being omnibenevolent. Peter Singer argues it is “impossible to believe” that a child who dies from natural evil deserved it because of sin. 

Augustine insists that God’s reasons and justice are beyond our understanding. We should not try to use our limited human minds to judge God. It might seem unfair, but Augustine puts it down to the “secret yet just judgement of God”, indicating that it is inscrutable – impossible for us to understand – but we should have faith it is just. Augustine points to Psalm 25:10: ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth,’ and concludes: “neither can his grace be unjust, nor his justice cruel”.

It is debatable whether the view that logic is invalid in understanding God can really solve the logical problem of evil. Arguably that simply fails to provide a logical response.

Augustine vs the evidential problem of evil

The evidential problem of evil claims that the evidence of evil in the world makes belief in God unjustifiable. Augustine’s theodicy claims that God allows evil because we deserve it. If the evidence supports that claim, then Augustine will have defeated the evidential problem of evil. He will have shown that evil is not evidence against God because we have evidence that we deserve it and therefore that a loving God would allow it.

The scientific evidence is against the fall. Geneticists claim that the evidence we have of genetic diversity means that it’s not possible for all of humanity to have descended from two people. This, plus the other evidence for evolution, suggests that we evolved and were not created.

Geneticists claim that the evidence we have of genetic diversity means that it’s not possible for all of humanity to have descended from two people. This, plus the other evidence for evolution, suggests that we evolved and were not created. The story of Adam and Eve is unscientific.

Furthermore: Augustine’s biological understanding of reproduction is false. Augustine admits that procreation is a mystery to him, but then on what basis does he continue to his claim that all future generations are “in the loins of the father”. He wrongly thought that reproduction worked by there being little people inside men (homunculus theory), so when Adam sinned all future humanity became infected by it.

Augustine could be defended. That his views on human nature being corrupted by original sin can still be derived from the evidence of his observations of himself and his society (such as the story about stealing pears). He could still be right that human nature is corrupted by original sin, even if he’s wrong about the Fall being the exact means by which that came to be.

G. K. Chesterton agreed with this point, arguing that you could see evidence for original sin ‘in the street’, as did R. Niebuhr who said it was the one ‘empirically verifiable’ Christian doctrine.

Pelagius: Augustine’s observations reflect his society, not human nature. Although it might appear that we have strong forces within us that incline us toward evil, Pelagius argues that could simply be because of the way we are raised and it only appears to be our nature because of how thoroughly corrupted we are by our upbringing, which Pelagius refers to as being “educated in evil”.

“The long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over may years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature”. – Pelagius

We could add contemporary historical and sociological evidence to Pelagius’ point. Humans have progressed since Augustine’s time. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Steven Pinker attributes to the power of human reason that violence has decreased, even considering the 20th century. The average human life seems more secure than at any prior point in history. If Augustine were correct that original sin caused an irresistible temptation to sin, then human behaviour could not have morally improved, yet it has.

Irenaeus’ Theodicy

Instead of viewing the Fall as negative, Irenaeus views it as a necessary stage in the development of humans towards perfection. Adam and Eve are like children who go astray because they lack sufficient wisdom to do what is right. Punishment is a way to help children mature.

On the basis of the quote from Genesis ‘God made humans in his image and likeness’, Irenaeus made a distinction between man being made in: the image of God verses the likeness of God. An image is when you look like something on the surface, whereas a likeness is when you actually are like something.

Creation has two steps for Irenaeus – firstly being made in God’s image where we have only a potential for good due to spiritual immaturity. Step two is where we achieve God’s likeness by choosing good over evil which enables us to grow spiritually and morally. The idea is that encountering and overcoming evil makes us become better more virtuous people.

A biblical example Irenaeus pointed to is Jonah and Whale: Jonah disobeyed God and then the natural evil of a storm and a big fish who ate him and spat him out days later helped Jonah learn his lesson and he then obeyed God. Evil thus serves the good purpose of motivating us to be good.

John Hick’s modern Irenaean Theodicy

Hick argued that human beings were not created perfect but develop in two stages:
Stage 1: Spiritually immature: through struggle to survive and evolve, humans can develop into spiritually mature beings.
The Fall is a result of immature humans who are only in the image of God.
Stage 2: Grow into a relationship with God

Hick argued for the Epistemic distance. This means that we cannot truly know of God’s existence. If God did make himself known to us, we would follow his commands out of obedience to his authority instead of following them because we had figured out that they were the right thing to do. Hick argued that it’s only if we have faith in God and still do good because we want to do good, rather than because we know for sure there’s a God who wants us to, that we can truly grow spiritually and morally. Peter Vardy illustrated this with the example of a peasant girl who a King falls in love with and forces her to marry him. The girl doesn’t really love the King and only does it due to obedience to authority out of fear. Similarly, if God appeared to us we would obey his authority rather than really loving what is good for its own sake, which is the morally superior move and therefore most conducive to soul making.

According to Hick everyone will be saved since a loving God would not send people to hell – universal salvation but post-mortem soul making is needed.

Irenaeus & Hick vs the evidential problem of evil

The evidential problem of evil claims that the evidence of evil in the world makes belief in God unjustifiable. Irenaeus & Hick’s theodicy claims that God allows evil because it serves the good purpose of soul-making. If the evidence supports that claim, then Irenaeus & Hick will have defeated the evidential problem of evil. There is evidence that encountering and overcoming evil develops a person’s character and virtue. This is behind the idea of character development in literature. It is also behind the idea that people become spoiled if they have too much luxury and not enough responsibility or difficulty to overcome. By going through harsh struggles, a person becomes stronger and gains compassion for others. This does seem to be a factual occurrence in life. For example, some people who get cancer gain a whole new lease on life and go about doing all the things they had always wanted to do.

Purposeless evil: some evil is purposeless. It has no chance of leading to spiritual development. For example, a child who dies of cancer. They are too young to even understand what is happening, let alone learn anything from it.

Hick replied that evil which seems pointless is part of the process of soul-making. If we believed that all evil was ultimately for a person’s benefit, then it would be difficult for us to really develop the deep meaningful sympathy that we feel for those who suffer pointlessly, which we need to develop for our own soul-making. For example, the child’s parents could learn something.

However, this seems unsatisfactory because what if the child has no parents? Or animal suffering; William Rowe gave the example of a fawn dying in a forest fire. We have evidence that such things happen, but no one would ever be able to gain sympathy or compassion from them. So, the evidence does not support the claim that God allows evil because it serves the good purpose of soul-making and thus Irenaeus & Hick fail to solve the evidential problem of evil.

Irenaeus & Hick vs the logical problem of evil

The logical problem claims that it is impossible for God and evil to co-exist. The theodicy of Irenaeus/Hick claims that evil serves the good purpose of soul-making. If this is logically possible then Irenaeus has solved the logical problem of evil.

Why create us limited? This raises the question of why didn’t God just make us good to begin with? Why bother with the first step, why not create us good?

Irenaeus answered that creating us fully developed was impossible. A fully developed soul is one which has chosen good over evil. If God made us fully developed, then he would be making us choose good over evil. But if you make someone do something, then they didn’t really choose it. Being fully developed requires having made a choice, therefore it’s logically impossible to make someone fully developed. God had to make us undeveloped and allow us the freedom to choose good over evil.

Why give us free will?: God could have created us with no free will like robots and then he could have controlled us so that there was no moral evil. Wouldn’t that have been better? Consider all of the harms that humans do to one another such as genocides. Is having free will really worth suffering such things?

Some evil is soul breaking: Isn’t some evil so bad that it is soul breaking? Can’t some evil destroy a person’s character rather than build it up and develop it? Some people are crushed into a depression or post-traumatic stress disorder when they experience evil. This suggests that evil doesn’t have this positive purpose that Irenaeus suggests. Matthew 5:45.

It could be responded that there is lots of evidence of evil being soul-making. The idea of ‘soul making’ is very close to ‘character development’ in literature or film. By going through harsh struggles, a character becomes stronger and learns more. This does seem to be a factual occurrence in life. For example, some people who get cancer gain a whole new lease on life and go about doing all the things they had wanted to do. In that case, arguably those whose souls are broken by evil, for example a cancer patient who became depressed by their diagnosis, simply failed to rise to the challenge of evil. Evil serves the good purpose of soul-making by providing us with an opportunity to become better people by choosing good over it. Just because some people fail to make that choice doesn’t invalidate Irenaeus’ theodicy.

However, it seems harsh to, for example, say to a cancer patient that they failed to rise to the challenge if they become depressed by their situation. Arguably that is logically incompatible with omnibenevolence.

Possible exam questions for the Problem of Evil

Assess Augustine’s theodicy
Assess Hick’s sole making theodicy
Can monotheism be defended in the face of evil?

Does the logical problem of evil succeed?
To what extent does the evidential problem of evil challenge belief?
Does Augustine’s use of original perfection and the Fall solve the problem of evil?
Assess Hick’s reworking of the Irenaean theodicy
‘natural evil enables human beings to reach divine likeness’ – How far do you agree?
Critically compare the success of Augustine and Hick’s theodicies.

Is the logical or evidential problem of evil the greater challenge to belief?
Is it easier to show that God’s existence lacks evidence than that it is logically impossible?
‘Augustine solves the logical problem of evil’ – Discuss
Does Augustine’s theodicy succeed against the evidential problem of evil?
‘Hick cannot solve the evidential problem of evil’ – How far do you agree?
How successfully can the evidental problem of evil be addressed through the explanation of soul-making?


Quick links

Year 12 philosophy topics: 
Plato & Aristotle. Soul, Mind & Body.
Design/Teleological argument. Cosmological argument. Ontological argument.
Religious experience. Problem of evil.

Year 13 philosophy topics:
 Nature & Attributes of God. Religious language. 20th Century philosophy of language.

OCR Ethics
OCR Christianity
OCR essay structure
OCR list of possible exam questions