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The problem of evil

<The following is a modified wikified portion of Larrys Text; further development is encouraged (removing first person, e.g.); see also Theodicy.>

The so-called "argument from evil" has as its conclusion "God does not exist." The argument expresses something called the problem of evil. Much has been written about the questions regarding rationality of theism (see Faith and rationality)--about whether arguments are needed in order to be rational in believing in God, for example. But we could just as well question the rationality of atheism.

In response to these questions, some atheistic philosophers insist that one can prove that the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God does not exist. One can prove a negative, they say, i.e., one can prove that something does not exist. One can show that the very concept of a thing is contrary to known facts. That is how the argument from evil proceeds: if God did exist, then he would eliminate evil from the world; but we see evil all around us; therefore, God does not exist.

Here is the argument, in a more detailed form:

  1. If God exists, then God is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving.
  2. If evil exists in the world, then either (1) God does not know about it, (2) God cannot eliminate it, or (3) God does not want to eliminate it.
  3. If God does not know about evil, then God is not omniscient.
  4. If God cannot eliminate evil, then God is not omnipotent.
  5. If God does not want to eliminate evil, then God is not all-loving.
  6. Hence (by premises 2-5), if evil exists in the world, then either God is not omniscient, or God is not omnipotent, or God is not all-loving.
  7. But evil does exist in the world.
  8. Thus (by premise 6 and 7) either God is not omniscient, or not omnipotent, or not all-loving.
  9. Therefore (by premises 1 and 8), God does not exist. (That is, the God of Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions, which is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving, does not exist.)

One might find The Problem of Evil in the fact that the premises of this argument seem compelling, but the conclusion is (to theists) unacceptable. Consider now the premises in turn.

Premise (1) simply states some basic facts about the conception of God under consideration: "If God exists, then God is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving." Most ordinary Christians would probably accept Premise (1). Others might reject the premise because they believe in a different sort of God. Process theologians, for example, reject the notion that God is omnipotent, and the Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner has also questioned the doctrine of omnipotence in some of his books, such as When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Many atheists and agnostics would also question the validity of Premise (1), wondering through what empirical or rational means people have discovered these properties of God. It is just as easy, an atheist might argue, to imagine an ignorant and cruel god as an all-knowing and all-loving god. This, an atheist might argue, completely undermines the relevance of the problem of evil to the debate about the existence of God.

Consider Premise (2): "If evil exists in the world, then either (1) God does not know about it, (2) God cannot eliminate it, or (3) God does not want to eliminate it." Why think this? Simply put, for a traditional theist, evil has to have some explanation. Why would a good God allow evil to exist in the world? Maybe he does not know about it; or maybe he can't get rid of it; or maybe he does not want to eliminate it. But is there any other explanation? Perhaps; perhaps not. Suppose God knew about evil, he could eliminate all of it, and he wanted to eliminate all of it; could evil even possibly exist then? Surely not. If God knew about all the evil, and he could get rid of it, and he desired to get rid of it, then God would get rid of it. But then we simply say: suppose that evil does exist. In that case, either God does not know about it, he cannot get rid of it, or he does not want to get rid of it. One of those options is open to us (or perhaps a combination of them). That is what Premise (2) says.

Some religions would argue that Premise (2) is flawed in that they agree that evil exists, that God does know about it, that God can eliminate it, and that God will eliminate it. The fact that God has not eliminated evil yet, does not imply that God does not intend to eliminate evil. In fact, it is often considered to be a good thing that God has not eliminated evil because one of the points of Judaism and Christianity is to be right with God at the point that God eliminates evil because all those who are not right with God will be accountable for their actions at the time of the elimination of evil. This is one of the main topics of the Book of Revelation. Also, in Judaism the whole idea of the Messiah is a solution to the travesty of evil.

The Unification Church believes that God wants human beings to get rid of evil themselves. According to this premise, then, God does not allow evil so much as He allows us to allow it. When we determine to get rid of it, this will make Him very happy. I'm not sure if any other churches have a similar belief.

Now examine Premise (3). "If God does not know about evil, then God is not omniscient." That seems perfectly true. If there is anything that God does not know, then God is not omniscient; this is contrary to the very definition of omniscience.

Similar things can be said about Premise (4). "If God cannot eliminate evil, then God is not omnipotent." That also seems incontrovertibly true. If there is anything that God cannot do--anything that does not involve a contradiction, anyway--then God is not omnipotent. It is sometimes held that to eliminate evil would result in a contradiction; that is, we live in the best of all possible worlds[?] (a view made famous by Gottfried Leibniz). But let us set this view aside for the time being. If God were omnipotent then, it seems, he could eliminate evil.

So both Premises (3) and (4) seem unobjectionable.

Next consider Premise (5), which is perhaps more interesting. "If God does not want to eliminate evil, then God is not all-loving." This premise seems more doubtful. Is it not at least possible that God is all-loving, but he still does not want to eliminate the pain and suffering in the world? Maybe it is perfectly consistent for an all-loving God to allow evil to exist in the world. We will elaborate this point in a bit. Just keep in mind that we are going to come back to it; so Premise (5) is the first premise we have found that is possibly dubious.

Another possibility, which is part of Unification Church (UC) doctrine, is that God does seek the elimination of evil and will appoint a special person to do this when the time is right (see Messiah). This raises the question of why God might tolerate (albeit temporarily) something He wants to eliminate. For the UC, it's to enable human beings to fulfill their responsibility for growth.

Premise (6) follows deductively from Premises (2)-(5); the only way to reject Premise (6) is to reject Premises (2), (3), (4), or (5).

Premise (7) is: "But evil does exist in the world." Some people deny this. Some people say that evil is merely an appearance; it is only an illusion. Nothing is really evil. In a certain frame of mind, evil might seem powerless and inconsequential. What really matters is goodness, happiness, love, or something like that; so evil does not matter, and in a sense it does not really exist.

It is difficult for most people to take this view seriously. First of all, even if evil "does not really matter," it nevertheless plainly exists. Hitler exterminated six million Jews; that was surely evil. People suffer from debilitating diseases all around the world; that too is surely an evil (a so-called "natural evil"; see below) we all potentially face. People are regularly killed by tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. Those events are awful evils. It sounds extremely implausible, to most people, to say that their obvious hatefulness or badness is illusory. Unless one has some sophisticated way to explain why evil is merely illusory, this view can be safely rejected. Nevertheless, many Hindus do take the view that everything is perfect. In a religion which accepts reincarnation, seemingly random misfortunes can be viewed as what is necessary in the path of the soul.

Premise (8) reads: "Thus (by Premises 6 and 7) either God is not omniscient, or not omnipotent, or not all-loving." This is a further inference from earlier premises, so the only way that we can reject it is by rejecting those earlier premises.

After going over each premise of the argument from evil, we have found one premise, namely (5), and perhaps also Premise (4), that gives us substantial hope of escaping the conclusion. Again: maybe it is perfectly consistent for an all-loving God to allow evil to exist in the world.

But how? How could a God that is all-loving allow evil not only to exist, but to flourish in the world? That is the project of giving a theodicy (q.v.).

Some theologians--of a mystical bent--believe that all they have to prove is that a loving God can have some purpose in permitting evil to exist. These people deny that they have to state God's purposes. There would be little point in doing that. God's purposes are not our purposes, they say; the nature of God is mysterious. All one has to do is to argue that a loving God might have some reason for allowing the existence of evil; one need not state what the reason is. This is an extremely popular view among ordinary theistic nontheologians, for two reasons, no doubt: first, it seems extremely pious not to try to guess at God's thoughts (indeed, some religions enjoin us from doing so); and second, it gives us a reason for not making an actual attempt to explain evil, which promises to be a difficult task.

But this whole line of argument is specious. If it is to be said that God "allows" evil to exist as a means to get to some "greater good," then God is using evil for his own purposes. But an omnipotent God would have no need to take such extraneous detours to "get to" this greater good, he would simply make it so. This means that God, if he is indeed omnipotent, chooses by his own free will to not only allow but promote the presence of evil.

Let us review a few actual attempts to explain evil (without necessarily endorsing any of them).

We might explain evil by pointing to the existence of free will. God gave us free will; so we are able to bring evil upon ourselves. We are to blame for the evils which we inflict and suffer. This is an unfortunate consequence of our status as free beings. But it is far better that we are free, and hence that we suffer evil, than it would be if we were merely unfree pawns in a perfect game that God played by himself.

This is very persuasive to many people. But there is a very serious problem with it: very much of the evil--the misfortune--that we suffer is not due, in any direct way, to any choices that human beings make. When the Black Death rode in the late Middle Ages, and wiped out millions upon millions of Europeans, that certainly was not due to any act of any human being. Or take any natural disaster at all: human beings do not cause, and cannot prevent, devastating earthquakes. So we should distinguish between "moral" evil and "natural" evil, a distinction we have been blurring up until now. Moral evil is any bad thing that for which humans are responsible; natural evil is any bad thing, such as an earthquake or flood, for which humans are not responsible. Human beings are to blame for moral evil, but they would appear blameless for natural evil.

Some may say that death in and of itself is not evil, since we all must die. The manner in which we die is mostly irrelevant, whether it is by natural disaster or by disease.

Others may simply say that human beings are responsible for all evil. For example, one might say Adam and Eve freely committed the Original Sin, of eating of the tree of the knowledge[?], thus we have been paying for that great sin ever since. This is actually quite a simplification of most Christians' views since Satan, who is also evil, already existed before the eating of the tree. We could get into specific issues of Biblical exegesis[?] and church doctrine at this point.

Suffice it for now to say that it would seem to be rather harsh, to say the least, that absolutely every member of the human race who came after Adam and Eve should have to pay, throughout their lives, with all manner of suffering, for that Original Sin of Adam and Eve.

This, according to many, is something that a loving God would not do. In fact, some traditions hold that God forgave Adam and Eve. Besides, this argument merely reduces the problem of evil, it does not solve it; the principles and other possible solutions apply perfectly well to the question of why God allowed Adam and Eve to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Furthermore, an effective argument can be made against free will forcing humanity to contend with "moral evil". An omnipotent God would have the ability to allow free will and eliminate evil. It doesn't matter if it seems to be a contradiction; to one with infinite power, this should prove to be no challenge. At the very least, one can have free will but physically be prevented from performing the evil, so that the intentions can be noted but not the act which would cause pain to others. For example, we may intend to teleport, but we cannot physically do so. This is a simple manner in which "moral evil" can be thwarted. It leaves only the question of whether such an impotent will can truly be considered free.

Here is another answer. A universe in which we are tested and improved by having to face evils is far better than a universe in which we might complacently live in blissful ignorance of evil. The souls who will inhabit heaven will be far better and stronger if they live in a world beset with all sorts of evils. Evil improves us. So God has allowed Satan to come to the power that he now has. Satan tempts us and if we resist, we are better for it. Satan also tests our will and resolve with all sorts of natural evils, earthquakes, floods, and whatnot; if we pass the test we are better for it. It has not been determined to what extent Satan is involved in natural disasters despite examples from the Bible, i.e., Job.

The obvious objection to this is why are we tested? Why are we brought into the world through no choice of our own, only to be put through tests? God could have made us perfect and saved us the effort of all these tests. In the end, all the testing proves unnecessary.

If one wanted to, one could bring a even more objections to this. Surely the absolute horrors that humanity has faced, especially in the twentieth century, are unnecessary to improve our moral mettle.

One thing that is not considered by this argument, however, is the Christian claim that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, suffered to redeem humanity and the cosmos from evil. If God bore evil in His own person, then that clearly shows there is a purpose behind the existence of evil. But, yes, this doesn't bring us any closer to a knowledge of that purpose, it merely shows that some theists believe that God has done and/or is doing something about the problem of evil.

But the nonsensical nature of this argument is apparent--namely that God created the problem of evil in the first place by deliberate choice when he did not have to do so. The notion that this God "suffers" for us and "endures" the evil he himself created is preposterous. A perfect God would create a world in which he would be fated to suffer? Is God a masochist? Are we to believe that suffering and evil really aren't bad after all, that they are actually good, and that we've got it all backwards?

There are two arguments that address this problem. First, some people, including some Christians, believe that the occurrence of natural evil is a direct result of moral evil. If everyone were to turn from evil, disease, famine, and natural disasters would end. The problem with this proposal is that natural evils often befall virtuous people and leave evildoers unharmed; the entire scene appears distributively unjust. Second, religions believing in reincarnation can attribute a natural disaster to the karma of the people involved. It is sometimes viewed as what is necessary and correct for the soul's progress.

There is more both sides could say about the problem of evil, but that would begin a discussion on theodicy in detail, which is a topic for theology more than the philosophy of religion.

See also:

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