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Ethics, Metaphysics

The Problem of Evil

 I don’t have a picture for this post. I don’t have a symbol. But allow me to paint one with words.

I have a friend whose wife might be leaving him. Of late their home has been flooded with tension, tears and strife. His three year old daughter has been putting band-aids all over her body. She knows she hurts, but she can’t find the wound. It’s heartbreaking to find out at such a young age that there is no band-aid for the soul. Isn’t it?

One picture. So simple, so poignant, so problematic. Band-aids don’t mend broken bones, or stitch up shattered hearts. Logic doesn’t lessen the sting of loss. Answers don’t always sooth personal anguish. What ever we say on this topic, we need hope beyond band-aid solutions because the dark underbelly of life has robbed us of their usefulness.

Maybe someone can turn that into an artistic expression?


There is the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil. Within the intellectual problem of evil there is the logical argument and the evidential or probabilistic argument. The intellectual problem is in the realm of the philosopher. The emotional problem falls under the provinces of the counselor, pastor, priest, rabbi, good friends etc. This post will respond to the logical problem that claims that the reality of evil makes belief in the traditional concept of God irrational.

‘Does the existence of evil make belief in God irrational or dumb? The most familiar statement of this argument comes from the pen of David Hume (who was following Epicurus):

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is Malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

So basically, in light of evil, God is either wicked or wimpy and the traditional God of theism cannot exist. Evil exists, so this God cannot.

Look at these four propositions:

  1. God Exists
  2. God is all-good
  3. God is all-powerful
  4. Evil exists

In order to make belief in God irrational the proponent of this argument has to show that holding to all four of these propositions involve embracing a contradiction. Here is the problem: there is no explicit contradiction contained in the above four statements.

Let me give you a few examples of explicit contradictions: God can’t exist and not exist at the same time and in the same sense. God can’t create humans and not create humans when the term humans is used at the same time and in the same sense. These are examples of explicit contradictions and the above four propositions don’t contain one. So is there, perhaps, an implicit contradiction? In order, to show that this is the case the proponent of this argument has to produce some additional premises. Philosopher J.L. Mackie is famous for his attempt to do so. He wrote:

“The additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that good things always eliminate evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists, and that evil exists, are incompatible.”

In order for Mackie’s thoughtful argument to succeed in proving the irrationality of theism in light of evil, his additional premises have to be necessarily true. But are they? Let us look at the concept of omnipotence first. Is it necessarily true that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing?

Most theists have not thought so (Descartes & possible William Ockham would be notable exceptions). Rather, God’s omnipotence implies that God can do all things that are intrinsically possible and in accordance with God’s nature. For example, God cannot do evil, or cease to exist. God cannot produce logical contradictions, like creating a round triangle or creating humans with free will, while simultaneously not creating them with free will (apply the same time/same sense rule). Nonsense remains nonsense even when we prefix the words ‘God can’ before the nonsensical statement. Therefore, it is not necessarily true the that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. This qualified understanding of omnipotence alone causes Mackie’s argument to fail.

How about the other additional premise: good is opposed to evil, in such a way that good things always eliminate evil as far as it can. This also does not seem to be necessarily true. For example, on a human level good parents, doctors and dentists at times intentionally impose pain and suffering (an evil in itself), but they do so to make possible a greater good. Taking your baby to get his or her shots would be a good example, or taking your four year old to the doctor to have his arm intentionally re-broken because it wasn’t healing properly. From the perspective of the young child this would seem like an unnecessary pointless evil, but the parent knows there is a morally sufficient reason to permit it.

All this to say, God may have a morally sufficient reason to permit evil that justifies all that occurs, even if that reason is beyond our ken. A morally sufficient reason would include 1. the good produced must sufficiently outweigh the evil permitted. 2. the good brought about would not have occurred without allowing the possibility of the evil 3. it is within the right of the person to permit the evil.

Various reasons have been suggested for God permitting evil like the free will defense or the soul-making theodicy. We are not, in any of these responses, stating that God does evil, or that evil somehow becomes good but, rather, that some good may not be achievable without the possibility of evil. For example, it seems that apart from free will we cannot speak meaningfully about love, moral responsibility and virtue etc. No free will, no moral evil. No possibility of moral evil, no genuine possibility of moral good etc.

Regardless of how convincing we may find these responses, the fact still remains that it is possible that God has a morally sufficient reason to permit evil and, therefore, it is not necessarily true that a good thing always eliminates evil, if to do so, would make impossible a greater good.

This is the logical version of the problem of evil. Most skeptics have abandoned it because of the difficulty of producing a genuine contradiction. But there is also the evidential version of evil advocated by philosophers like William Rowe and Paul Draper. In this approach evil is not incompatible with the existence of God, but evil constitutes strong evidence against the existence of a loving, all-powerful God. This approach has also sparked interesting debate amongst philosophers of religion, but perhaps some one else can investigate that issue.

Let us not forget that evil and suffering is an emotional, existential problem as well. This is the realm in which most people wrestle with the problem.

Theologian Douglas Hall once wrote, “Of answers to the ‘problem of suffering’ there is in fact no lack! Only, all of them flounder on the rocks of reality, at the cry of one starving or derelict child. The only satisfying answer is the answer given to Job – the answer that is no answer but is the presence of an Answerer.”[1]

This is the emotional problem. Hall’s answer may not be ours, but this is where the rubber hits the road. How do we suffer in a way that is meaningful and not meaningless, purposeful and not purposeless?



[1] Douglas John Hall God & Human Suffering: An exercise in the Theology of the Cross. p. 118


About Chris Price

Pastor at Calvarybaptist.ca


8 thoughts on “The Problem of Evil

  1. Good post. I especially liked the way you introduced it.

    It makes me think of the old saying: without evil, there is no possibility of good. Without death there is no possibility of life. The light requires the dark, or there is only blindness.

    This balance is recognized by many religions other than Christianity. It is key in Zoroastrianism, a major precursor to Christianity, based in Persia. It is the central tenet if Taoism.

    Ironically, we have to allow, the more good God is, the more evil there must be in the world, in order for God’s goodness to be realized. The brighter God shines, the darker is the abyss. One wonders whether such an extreme good is worth it, in view of the suffering that must take place for it to exist.

    Posted by Stephen Downes | October 14, 2013, 7:05 am
    • Hi,

      Thank you so much for the comments. I really appreciate your thoughts. Pertaining your last paragraph, one certainly does wonder if all the good is worth all the evil and suffering.

      Anyways, I like what you write. I think I would phrase things differently, though we might be in complete agreement. Rather than good requiring evil, I would follow Augustine in contending that evil (necessarily) requires the good. Evil remains radically contingent on the good. Evil is not in a symbiotic relationship with the good, evil is parasitic; it preys on the good to spoil it.

      For example, if I were to hit an innocent person with a baseball bat in order to intentionally wound him or her that would be an evil act – it ‘ought not’ to have been done. But in order for me to commit that violent act I must exist, have a will, and a mind; there must be the relevant physical laws in operation, and another person must exist. I would contend that all of these things are either fundamentally good, or morally neutral. Evil, therefore, happens when I use these goods (or neutral) things (my mind, my will, the physical environment etc) for a wrong, harmful purpose.

      People of my persuasion quote C.S. Lewis far too often, but I have always found his comments on this matter helpful:

      “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. And there must be something good before it can be spoiled…all the things which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things – resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself. That is why Dualism, in a strict sense, will not work.”

      Here Lewis is following Augustine. Is this what you mean by referring to no good without evil? If so, I am on board completely.

      There is no death without life; there is no sickness without health, there is no evil without good, but I think there can be good without the evil. Good has to be primary and foundational, in my perspective, to even speak coherently about the nature of evil as a deprivation.

      Or do you mean that evil is necessary to properly appreciate or even identify the good; like a study in contrasts? Your last paragraph makes me think that this is exactly what you mean. I think there might be something to that as well and I will have to think more about it.

      Thanks for your thought provoking comments. I found them helpful.


      Posted by Chris Price | October 15, 2013, 2:54 pm
  2. Hi Chris, the topic of this post is something that I’ve been curious about myself, so much appreciation for it.

    “Does the existence of evil make belief in God irrational or dumb?… God cannot produce logical contradictions, like creating a round triangle or creating humans with free will, while simultaneously not creating them with free will”

    Do you believe that God created humans with or without free will, and how do you think this effects the amount of evil in the world?

    I personally believe that God did create us with free will, and thus is the reason evil exists in the world. He allows us the opportunity to choose good or evil, and if we do choose evil, it is us humans – not God – who have created it. I think God willingly eradicated the possibility of an evil-free world when He gave us free will.

    Also; you talk about the justification of evil so long as it brings about a greater good. This idea reminds me largely of utilitarianism, where “the morally right action is the action that produces the most good”, or re-phrasing to a cliche, “the ends justify the means”.

    (A little blurb on utilitarianism: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/ )

    Example of utilitarianism’s flaws: a surgeon has five dying patients, all in need of a different healthy organ. A sixth healthy patient arrives. A devout utilitarian would take the five different organs from the one healthy patient in order to save the five dying patients. Five people are saved (five “goods” committed), and only one person dies (only one “evil” committed). But is killing an innocent person ever justifiable?

    You could also consider how God sacrificing His son, Jesus Christ to be crucified for our sins to be an ultimate case of utilitarianism; sacrificing one for salvation of all.

    So, do you think that God – through proofs in the Bible or by your faith – is in essence, a utilitarian? And do you think utilitarianism can applied to solve all problems?

    Posted by katbilan | October 15, 2013, 2:31 am
    • Hi,

      Wonderful comment. Thank you for reading and writing.

      When it comes to the free will defense libertarian free will is being presupposed, over and opposed to determinism, or compatabilistic accountings of ‘freedom.’ Libertarian free will means that we are free not only to act on our desires, but also to form our desires, weigh our options, and actualize a decision on this basis. This is the most commensical view of freedom over and opposed to compatablism where we are internally determined by our desires, or determinism where we are externally determined by various casual factors.

      As a Christian, I do believe that God created people with a certain degree of freedom in order to make moral accountability and virtue coherent concepts. This freedom if genuine is; of course, open to abuse, which would account for some moral evil and, to a limited extent, some natural evil as well. There are, however, limits to a free will defense, as it doesn’t seem to be able to account for some extreme natural evils (earthquakes, Tsunamis etc). For that a theist might employ the soul making theodicy or a natural law theodicy (theodicy comes from two Greek words and literally means justifying the ways of God to men = people).

      You raise an interesting point about utilitarianism. This is a common response that people raise when it comes to the above argument. There are a couple important distinctions to be made when comparing utilitarianism to the above argument. Firstly, I think that any version of consequentialism is terribly flawed for the reason you mention and many others. I, myself, would embrace a deontological approach to ethical theory combined with some of the insights contained in virtue ethics.

      Secondly, Utilitarianism doesn’t apply to God in my view. Utilitarianism seeks to determine our moral duties by assessing what action would cause the most beneficial consequences for the most people. This is the first problem with comparing utilitarianism to God’s ways in our world. Following many theists, I believe that moral duties arise for us in response to imperatives issued by God. God does not issue commands to himself so God has no moral duties in this sense. Rather, God’s actions are consistent with God’s perfect nature. Since consequentialism seeks to determine our moral duties and seeing as God has none, consequentialism cannot apply to God. This, of course, doesn’t imply that God can just do anything or arbitrarily call rape or murder good because his actions must be consistent with His own perfectly good nature (This is a version of divine command theory which is not overly popular, but I think it is coherent and workable and its objections, like the Euthyprho dilemma, surmountable).

      In my view, one of the huge problems with utilitarianism is that evil acts like murdering a person become not only ‘good’, but also our moral duty if it benefits a large amount of people (which is another problem – we can’t tell the future. We can only guess). Whereas, in the argument above the evil act still remains evil even if God permitted the conditions that allowed the act to occur, in light of ‘His’ overarching purposes. As one philosopher writes, “ don’t think that because God permits some evil act in light of an overriding good, that act is no longer evil. The human act is still evil despite the great goods which may come of it. That is to say, consequentialism is false and remains false.”

      So my response would be your are right about utilitarianism, but I don’t think it applies to God or the above argument.

      Of course, this whole conversation is assuming a God of a certain type, and in your thoughtful response the Christian perspective of God where His Son, Jesus Christ, atones for the world’s sins and then rises from the dead as God’s validation of His life and ministry. But even in this case, “ the crucifixion of Jesus is still wrong (falsely trying and executing an innocent person) even if God allowed it in light of the great good that comes out of it.” This view of God could, of course, speak profoundly to the problem of evil because in this religious tradition God doesn’t try to get ‘himself’ off the hook of suffering, he puts himself on the hook of suffering at the cross. This is a God who suffers with us, for us and because of us etc.

      But this last bit of the dialogue shares many assumptions that other contributors to this blog won’t hold. That is okay because the above argument above does not presuppose the Christian view of God, but rather, the generic concept of God held by most theistic traditions.

      Thank you so much for your comment and happy thanksgiving,


      Posted by Chris Price | October 15, 2013, 3:29 am
  3. This thread is reminding me of an early post from 2012-13, by Liam: https://talonsphilosophy.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/nature-what-nature/

    While it might jerk the wheel slightly from the thread of conversation here thus far, I think this passage is helpful in continuing to explore this metaphysical theme:

    “Indeed, this pigeon-holing of people as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ has dangerous ramifications. Doing so makes it easy for us to cast off immoral actions as the result of evil people, letting us go on with our lives safe in the knowledge that people who do bad things are just bad people and we’d better try our best to stay away from them. But this is simply a denial of reality. No one is intrinsically ‘evil’. Everyone is simply human; no more and no less. To label someone as ‘evil’ is to deny their humanity, and by extension, to deny that they are the same as you and I. For that is the most important thing to remember when we speak of ‘evil’. We are not speaking of monsters, of deformed boogeymen and incomprehensible lunatics. We are speaking of people. We are speaking of people with mothers and fathers, of people with brothers and sisters, of people who cried when they skinned their knee as a child and felt scared when the older kids walked by. If you want to understand ‘evil’, you cannot separate it from our basic notions of humanity.”

    Liam is speaking here of humankind’s innate qualities, but his ideas (and the pages of comments the post illicited) may offer much in the way of conversation this week as we prepare themes of inquiry around our metaphysicians and their ideas.

    Nice to see this conversation flowing! Great, insightful post, Chris!

    Posted by bryanjack | October 15, 2013, 4:12 pm
  4. Compelling arguments here. Would you however consider that English language does not contain the right words to justify the whole aspect of if God is all good and God is omnipotent and good always does its best to combat and neutralize evil, but there is still evil then God must be malevolent. This is where this argument seems to be biased as malevolence, malice and spite cannot wholly be used as characteristics toward God based on his previous “actions”

    Posted by iulianpalade | October 15, 2013, 6:22 pm


  1. Pingback: Katherine 2013 | Philosophy 12 - October 26, 2013

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