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God and the Problem of Evil

Updated on June 27, 2014

God and the Problem of Evil

There are different meanings attaching to the phrase "the problem of evil." More often than not, grieving readers, ruing the operation of evil and suffering in the world, come across a discussion of "the problem of evil" only to be grievously disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of sensitivity about the subject. The philosophic subject known as "the problem of evil" has a clinical and detached quality about it, which offends certain readers. Nonetheless, this results arises sometimes from a rejection of the inherently dispassionate character of philosophic analysis in favor of wishful thinking, consolation, or venting of pent-up anger made available through other venues.

The theological problem of evil has to do with theories one may elicit from the Scriptures to explain how suffering and evil can exist in a universe assumed to be created and administered by a benevolent and just deity. The dominant Biblical theory turns out to be the retributive one: suffering is inflicted on account of earlier transgressions. A related principle of the Old Testament - which comes acorss as grossly unfair - is that the punishment for transgressions may well be inflicted on later generations. This may explain why apparently innocent people suffer hideously but it pays the significant price of offending moral intuitions. The broader retributivist theory, that seems to be at work, is that someone has to pay for a crime in order that some sort of moral balance is to be restored. This comes across as a bad moral theory - indeed, moral theories can be better or worse. The Christian New Testament has a different notion of the deity than the Old Testament, with significant shift of emphasis to the softer divine attributes of benign charity and concern for individuals. Nevertheless, the atonement theory, accounting for Jesus' sacrifice, betrays the old theory of retributivism at work. This view of the divine has been criticized, mostly by Enlightenment and later thinkers, as suspiciously akin, not to a prescriptive theory, but to a description of an Oriental Despot who simply inflicts punishment as his uncontested right. An outrageous theory of punishment is at work in one of the oddest books of the Old Testament, the Book of Job (suspicious to many, as to its origin): there "punishments" are inflicted on the righteous Job simply as a matter of God's playing a wagering game against a challenging adversary. (As an explanatory theory of punishment this also suffers from the additional, and absurd, complication that "punishment" here seems to have a different meaning. So, if one were to speak of Job's punishments and conclude toward an explanation of punishment, one could even be guilty of equivocation on the word "punishment" itself!)

Equally offensive is the fact that certain plausible theories of suffering are missing from the Scriptures: for instance, suffering as an education.

It is not surprising that events like the Holocaust stirred profound doubts in many consciences. Thoughy the Holocaust ratchets up the intensity of evil and suffering - indeed up to gross enormity - the seeds of dissatisfaction lie already in the theories of suffering and evil one finds in the Scriptures even when it comes to explaining less traumatic events.

The New Testament does proffer a version of a theory of suffering as inherently redemptive and broadly educational; oddly, though, the inherent value of this educational character of suffering and punishment is undercut by the threat that, once the game is over (after Christ's Second Coming) there is to be no more education or correction: the suffering of Hell will be, once again, strictly retributivist.

If anyone were to turn to the Bible for a "softer" or more sympathetic view of human suffering, he or she might be disappointed. The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is the exception to this but this also carries a significant price: to imitate Christ, one ought to invite, not reject, suffering; this has a supererogatory quality. (Supererogation means asking more than the average human being can bear.) We are here to be concerned with what is known as the philosophic problem of evil.

God and Evil

Does the existence of evil and excessive suffering prove that God does not exist?

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The Proof that God does not Exist

There is a specific, and unexpectedly technical, philosophic problem known as the Problem of Evil. The term "evil" comprises both moral evil and "natural evil" or suffering (at least, disproportionate suffering.) The study of this problem can be appreciated and carried out with benefit even regardless of any interest in the theological variant of the problem. The philosophic problem of evil is something of a challenge that requires a solution. If no solution can be found, it is arguable that it has been proven that a God who is supposed to have certain attributes does not exist.

The earliest versions of the challenge may date to Hellenistic antiquity; it might even be the case that the challenge originated independently of exposure to monotheistic claims. Initially, what is offered is not a challenge but a presumed proof that shows that God, as defined, does not exist. This proof is of immediate interest to the monotheistic religions because the divine attributes that are required for this proof are indispensable properties of the God of monotheistic religions. It is fascinating that, if any one of the attributes is withdrawn, then the proof that God does not exist no longer goes through. Yet, the deistic thinker or believer cannot compromise and let any one of the relevant divine attributes be subtracted.

Here are the three crucial divine attributes in the initial proof that God does not exist. The challenge becomes to show that the proof has some fault or other.

The first relevant divine attribute is omnipotence. By definition, this property of the divine means that there is nothing God cannot do. There is disagreement as to whether divine omnipotence must include ability to do even what is logically impossible. This more inclusive view - call it Absurdist - generates puzzles and possibly genuine paradoxes. The Rationalist strand of thinking on divine omnipotence defines the characteristic as referring to ability to do anything that is not logically impossible. This includes actions that may be physically impossible or incomprehensible to us insofar as they are not logically absurd. The distinction between these two views does not play a major role in discussions of the problem of evil.

The second relevant divine attribute is omniscience. This attribute could have been included under the first, with appropriate explanations given as to this inclusion. Omnipotence implies possessions of unconstrained epistemic abilities - and this is what we mean by omniscience after all. Omniscience means that the deity knows everything across spatial and temporal boundaries. Moreover, because omniscient, God possesses complete knowledge across all conceivable fields of enterprise, from artistic to geographical and from scientific to moral.

The third attribute is referred to, sometimes as moral perfection, sometimes as (omni)benevolence. "Moral perfection" is the more inclusive term but it is to be understood that it includes moral qualities like benevolence, caring, sympathy for suffering. A possible tension regarding this attribute arises: Moral perfection also includes justice in responding to transgressions. What if justice, in this sense, conflicts with benevolence, leniency, sympathy and pity - which God is also supposed to have? This problem can be vitiated, however, when we turn to contemplate excessive and disproportionate suffering (which, as such, goes beyond fair retribution for actions) - and there are, alas, myriad such cases in recorded and in everyday private human history.

Now we are ready to formulate the proof. We combine omnipotence and omniscience under one divine attribute - omnipotence. Similarly, we understand moral perfection to include the qualities of benevolence, caring, sympathy and pity. Finally, by evil we mean both moral evil and excessive suffering (and, also, suffering of those who do not deserve it.) Nothing changes because of this and we can economize when we try to talk about and to symbolize the problem.

  1. If the God of the religion exists, then this God has to be omnipotent and morally perfect. (Premise)
  2. If God is omnipotent, then he both knows about evil and can make it go away. (Premise)
  3. If God is morally perfect, then he has the requisite moral qualities to care about evil and to want to make it go away. (Premise)
  4. If God is omnipotent and morally perfect, then he wants to make evil go away, he knows about it and he is able to make it go away. (from 2 and 3)
  5. Evil exists unabated, which means that evil has not been made to go away. (Premise)
  6. God is either not omnipotent or not morally perfect. (from 4 and 5)
  7. God is not both omnipotent and morally perfect. (from 6)
  8. The God of the religion does not exist. (from 1 and 7)

Solutions to the Challenge: Withdrawing a Premise

One premise, from the above formulation of the proof, that has been questioned is # 5. It goes against common sense to deny that evil exists but it has been done. A thinker once confused for Dionysius of Areopagus, Athens, whom Paul converted to Christianity, had a version of this view and Augustine of Hippo also subscribed to the position that evil does not exist. The proper formulation is that "evil is not real", so evil should not be considered as an occurrence in the actual world. Real and actual are to be considered as the same here - although this too could be questioned.

To understand this daring claim, one needs to have some knowledge of Platonism; the claim that evil cannot exist in the actual world because evil lacks what makes something real is ultimately Platonic. Recall that "evil" comprises both moral evil and intense suffering; as such, evil refers also to the harmful and painful consequences of natural disasters, wars, and other such calamitous elements of the human condition. Many a student of the philosophic analysis of the problem become irate at this apparent rejection of common sense. The view that evil is not real is rather subtle and cannot be recovered immediately through application of common sense. This solution is indeed susceptible of criticism. as it is to be expected.

One of the fundamental tenets of Platonism is that reality as a property of entities comes in degrees. We are used to thinking in binary fashion about properties and this way of thinking, often missed on the tradition, is surprising at first. Nevertheless, most attributes turn out indeed to be vague - possessed or not possessed as a matter of degree rather than neatly. An elephant is neatly a large animal and an ant is neatly, or crisply, a small animal but what about a dog? When we say "smallish" or "sort of small" we indicate that our treatment of the attribute "small" is not crisp but, what is known today as, fuzzy: a matter of degree. Whether we can also think of the property "real" as also being fuzzy is another matter. Not all properties are fuzzy, of course, and treating "real" as fuzzy still seems objectionable. To get the flavor of how Plato approaches this, consider the following: A nugget that has 80% gold is more "real" as gold compared to a nugget with 70% gold in it, and so on. We might think that they are both real anyway, equally real, except that the one is more gold-like rather than the other but Plato takes it that attributes themselves bestow reality. The attributes we would be tracking in this world have only passing, ephemeral instantiations: beautiful things are only beautiful for a short while and are not even beautiful then if placed within the wrong frame, and so on. This sensible world is in constant flux: the real is not in it because the real ought to be immune, or relatively immune, to whatever it is that makes possession of an attribute vanish right away. So, Beauty is real, and it is beautiful 100%, but things considered beautiful are "quite so" or "sort of" all the way to "not really" or "not quite" and "not at all."

Given this view of reality, the Platonists draw the conclusion that privations (failures of attribute-instantiations) cannot be real. Given the theory, this makes sense. This does create a problem for the theory because the meaning of the sentence "x is ugly" is not the same as "x lacks beauty": so it seems that we must have negative attributes and not only positive ones (bestowing reality) and their absences. Plato was painfully aware of such problems and has his Socrates character discuss such critiques of the theory in dialogues like Parmenides.

If we take absences of attributes not to be real, then we can say that we experience as evil in any sense is only the absence of the positive attributes - the good attributes. So, evil is not real. A mystical metaphor usually adduced to make this point is that darkness is the absence of light; light is real but darkness is not anything real, it is only the non-presence of what enlightens a place.

Why couldn't we still take the absence to be a real calamity even if its metaphysical status is non-descript? This shows a line of criticism of this viewpoint. Even if we accepted that we are deluded in attributing reality status to absences, still, what about the actual suffering induced by this way of our being deluded? Plato could bypass the problem of our suffering anyway because he doesn't have to have a benevolent or sympathetic deity. In work after work of his, Plato admonishes us not to take our pitiable emotional plight too seriously - the mental goods unify but the bodies, through which we suffer, divide. Plato also scoffs at our human-all-too-human tendency to think that we are imortant enough within the universal scheme of things to merit attention, care, or sympathy by any deities. As for the deities themselves, isn't it an insult to their sublime occupations to expect them to drop the great mental tasks they pursue and turn our attention to our pitiable plight? Clearly, a different theology is at work here - not the theology of the popular monotheistic religions. Still, the Platonic approach was adopted by Christian thinkers like Augustine. There may be some revised version of this solution, which works better. Teaching this material myself I have noticed an instant fascination some students show for this solution. It may be an emotional response to what sounds like a promise to show that evil and suffering are only imaginary. At any rate, the Augustinian response sounds dogmatically suspect too because religion accepts that evil is real - and so is suffering. If suffering is not real, then Jesus did not suffer on the Cross. This is one of the earliest designated heresies in a canonical history of doctrines by Eusebius. (I think that the name of the herese is Docetism and was the grounds on which books like The Gospel According to Thomas were rejected.)

Solutions to the Challenge: Altering a Premise

The previous solution withdraws a premise, as we saw. The more common response to the challenge is to alter a premise or two. The target is the pair of premises ## 2 and 3 above, and the derived line # 4 is affected accordingly. The alteration is "unless there is a morally sufficient reason." In short, the point about a God with the requisite attributes not preventing to make evil and suffering go away is now that God may have morally compelling reasons for allowing evil and suffering. Considering the following allegory to grasp the point.

The children are suffering excessively, tormented by physical discomforts and beset by evil characters who corrupt them. There surely can't be any parents around. Doesn't this prove that the children have no parent? One response, of course, is to say that the parent is not aware of what is going on. This won't do, though, insofar as the parent must be considered omniscient. Another response could be that the parent knows about it and cares but doesn't have the power to change the situation. This runs against the requirement that the parent is omnipotent. Finally, the parent could be indifferent; so, it is not that we have proven that no parent exists. This last response, however, is disallowed by the requirement that the parent is benevolent. Doesn't this situation, then, show that there is no parent? The response then becomes that the parent has some morally compelling reason for allowing this to happen and to continue (although he or she does not cause it.)

Notice that the divinity is not to be considered as the causal factor behind the evil and suffering: only the force that permits it all to happen and continue. One line of criticism can question that this is a meaningful distinction. Even so, the response - that there is a morally good reason - can be applied regardless of the causal aspect.

What many students of the problem find especially aggravating - but, remember, no emotions in philosophic analysis - is this: the solution actually works but it works even if we never find out or are told what those morally good reasons are!

The solution works because the argument we presented earlier now has a different formal structure to it; this new structure, unlike the old one, is NOT valid. Without training in logic, we cannot tell but this is indeed the case. It is possible to produce counterexamples to the logical form of the revised argument but not so with respect to the logical form of the initial argument. (A counterexample to an argument form is an argument that has the form we are talking about and has all true premises and a false conclusion. This shows that this argument form does not guarantee truth-preservation. In other words, the form is invalid. Any argument that has this form is invalid or logically to be rejected. We don't need to bother to check if its premises are true because it does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion on the basis of true premises. All this is about arguments in deductive reasoning. One of the reactions to this type of solution is to claim that the formulations of the proof against God's existence should be properly cast as inductive arguments.)

Solutions and Critiques

We have seen that the logical structure of the supposed proof that God does not exist is altered when changes are made to premises by adding "unless God has morally compelling reasons for allowing evil and suffering." The logical structure of the new proof is invalid. The proof is in deductive reasoning; so, its success or failure is a matter of validity or invalidity of its logical form.

We don't have to know what reasons God may or could have to permit evil and suffering. This sounds like an evasion. Moreover, it may be surprising that all this technical analysis (not shown here) results in what sounds like a convenient old saw: God has good reasons for permitting evil and suffering. Of course, we have not proven that this is the case. The crucial statement is implicative (if/then statement): if God has compelling reasons, etc.. (We used an "unless" clause above but "p unless q" is logically equivalent with "if not-p then q.")

Even though the proof that God does not exist given that evil and suffering exist has been defeated regardless of specifying reasons for permitting evil, the solutions in the literature on the philosophic problem of evil proffer such reasons. The most popular one - not that these matter are decided by majority opinion - is the following:

Evil is the result of human freedom. Free action is such an indispensable value on which to base the human condition that the byproduct of evil actions, freely chosen by malicious human agents, is acceptable as the price to pay. Without free action, humans would be automatic; they could not claim credit for their actions, they would not be having accomplishments, and they could not be rightly praised or condemned. The rich human drama that so enlivens and enriches human life would, instead, be something like a puppet show. As an inevitable consequence of human free action, evil comes into the world and people suffer.

In spite of its popularity, this solution can be subjected to severe criticism. For one, it does not answer the challenge as to what reason justifies the suffering inflicted on human beings, and on animals, because of natural disasters, diseases, and other occurrences that do not emanate from human action. The suffering of animals caused by other animals cannot be accounted for even on the grounds of free action since animal action is not free. Another criticism, due to philosopher Mackie, is this: Granted, human freedom is valuable. Still, one may freely choose to act in such ways that evil and suffering do not follow as a result. One may freely choose to be good instead of evil. God could have so contrived matters that free human agents would be acting freely and yet at the same time doing the right thing - or doing the right thing to the extent that the excess of evil and suffering we are familiar with does not come about. A response to this is that the scenario that has humans do the right thing systematically would have to be a deterministic situation - humans would not be free but determined to act in such a way as to prevent evil and suffering. This response makes an unwarranted presumption. The consequence that has free agents do evil things is not a logical consequence; it is a historical one. It is logically possible to have free agents who do the right thing freely. Preventing free and evil action is not a logical impossibility and it is not clear at all how this would require taking freedom away.

Another solution takes evil and suffering to be indispensable for education or building a character and growing in moral achievements. The parent knows that the children are suffering and subjected to evil, he has the power to change all this and he is benevolent and caring; nevertheless, he lets this situation continue in order to have the children build character and attain to worthy moral heights. This solution falls short too. When the condition of evil and suffering becomes too much, and the parent still does not step in, reasonable doubts may arise as to whether a parent exists. This last sentence shows also a shift away from the deductive proof toward an inductive proof: it is less likely - though not impossible - that no parent exists insofar as we are failing to specify a good reason or the reasons we come up with fall short of accounting for the enormity of the situation.

There is an aesthetic solution to the problem, but it is rarely studied. Think of how a work of art seems to gain immensely - given also the talent of the creator - from a touch of evil and suffering. Tolstoy opened one of his famous novels by intoning that happy families are like each other - but unhappy families are not, and, it is to be inferred, it is unhappy families that furnish material for a more successful work of art. There is a question, though, about this solution. Is God to be understood as an aesthetic perfectionist? Would God still be benevolent if he sacrificed human well-being to an aesthetic ideal? Are aesthetic values to be ranked so high? (There is a view that they should be, called aesthetic perfectionism, which finds expression in some passages in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche. Not to smear Nietzsche's reputation, aesthetic perfectionism was Hitler's privately held moral view, as we can see from documented textual evidence.)

It is particularly difficult to come up with morally sufficient reasons to account for what seems to be the gratuitous suffering sometimes afflicting animals. Solutions like the freedom theory or the moral education view are not available here. Other solutions have been suggested: for instance, the point is made sometimes that good itself cannot be comprehended and cannot be perceived as an acting agent without evil: it would be like living in a room with a red light forever, in which case no notion of any light other than red can be grasped. Like the other solutions, this one too cannot explain what clearly seems to be a relentless ratcheting up of evil and suffering in human history.

The failure to produce a reason does not defeat the criticism of the deductive proof that God does not exist, as we saw. Nevertheless, a switch to an inductive argument can be proposed reasonably at this point: given the failure to produce a satisfactory reason, the conclusion "God does not exist" in an inductive argument becomes more and more likely to be true. (It cannot become 100% true, since we are no longer making the case deductively, but we are getting, in this way, a considerably strong inductive argument.)

There is another problem that is associated with the deductive solution. It is not possible to falsify the claim "God exists" by pointing to defeating claims - like those associated with evil and suffering. There is always an auxiliary phrase available to the deist (the phrase, for instance, "unless God has a morally compelling reason for permitting evil and suffering"); this phrase can be added to salvage the claim "God exists" from falsification. If you think that this is God - "the claim can never be defeated" - think again. Non-falsifiability is a vice of theories, turning them into junk. Whether a claim, theory, or explanation should be accepted or not, we should know under what circumstances this claim is falsified. Otherwise, the claim may or may not be true but we cannot telll if it is false. The classic case for falsifiability was made by philosopher of science Karl Popper.

The valid propositional-logic rules used. The numbers of the premises on which the rules were applied are indicated within parentheses above each rule.
The valid propositional-logic rules used. The numbers of the premises on which the rules were applied are indicated within parentheses above each rule.

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