The so-called problem of evil is a topic of much debate in theology and the philosophy of religion. It was first proposed by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Many atheists base their views to some degree on their assessment of this argument's strength, and this problem has been investigated by many theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas:
- An omniscient being knows all the true propositions, including those which describe all the evil that exists.
- 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.
- However, an omnipotent being has the power to prevent evil from befalling persons.
- Given 1, 2 and 3, we would expect that God should prevent evil from occurring. However, we know evil occurs from time to time.
- Therefore, God lacks at least one trait usually ascribed to Him or else does not exist at all.
This is an example of an inconsistent triad.
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.
If God is not all powerful, then his ability to constrain all evil in any given moment is limited.
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 allowing some evil serves a greater good, then allowing 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 allowing 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 explanations by reminding the theist that each explanation'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.
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.
God's love for us as particular persons
One proposed solution to the problem of evil argues that, although people in general could exist without evil, the particular people who now exist could not. The lives of all who now live are so deeply entwined with the evils of the past, that without all of those evils, or the bulk of them, everyone now alive would never have existed. In a perfect world, none of us would have ever been born; in a perfect world, people would still exist, but we would not be among them, nor anyone whom we love. If God loves people in general, the best thing He could have done for people in general would have been to create a perfect world for them to live in. But if God loves particular people — the particular people who now exist — the best thing He could have done for those particular people is to create a world containing whatever is necessary for their existence — in other words, the best thing God could do for us is to create the very world which now exists. God could have done better; but God could not have done better for us, only for other people.
We creatures really have no right to complain about God creating a world which contains evil, for without evil we would not exist — when we are complaining about God creating a world which contains evil, what we are really objecting to is our own existence, for God creating such a world is necessary to our own existence.
The objection is made to this account, that it could also justify all kinds of evil acts committed by human beings, e.g. the mass murderer could claim that they committed their crimes out of a special love for those who would only exist as a result of those crimes. On the contrary, this justification is only valid for a being who has perfect foreknowledge of the future — i.e. God. Although the mass murderer can know that certain people will only exist as a consequence of their mass murder, the mass murderer cannot claim to know and love those people as specific individuals, only as an amorphous potentiality. Only God can know and love those people as individuals, thus this is only a valid moral justification for acts of God, not for the acts of any lesser beings.
By the objective standards of goodness and power, in face of the existence of evil, atheists reject the existence of God, 'For', they say, 'God cannot tolerate evil.' But, if God is both good and powerful, then it is not God Himself who cannot tolerate evil; rather, it is us, who are evil, who cannot tolerate God. God does not kill the fallen body, rather, it is the fallen body which cannot remain alive in the face of its knowledge of itself as fallen from the holiness of God. God did not say, "I will kill you if you partake of the least arrogance against me", rather, He said, "You shall die if you partake of it." In rejecting God, the atheist most profoundly condemns himself for being that which he most implicitly knows himself to be: corrupt. And, how can he know himself to be corrupt unless there is the image of God in his soul? In fact, God is so good, and so powerful, that He is far more tolerant of evil than are we: This is the root of mercy, else we each, and all, would perish at conception. Each of us accords ourselves a measure of patience in face of other's evils. But, in so far as patience is a function of love, patience is an act of self-sacrifice. And, what greater love can there be than that the eternal God become a man so as to sacrifice himself for us? Like a door, in an infinitely wide-and-tall impenetrable wall in total darkness, becomes luminous red.
The problem of evil for atheists
Rejecting God does not dispose of the problem of evil; evil continues to exist, and continues to be as problematic as before. While the atheist, having rejected God, no longer needs to justify the goodness of God to themselves (theodicy), now they are faced with the equally difficult task of justifying the goodness of their new objects of faith, humanity and the universe. Thus they turn to what are the atheistic equivalents of theodicy, anthropodicy (the attempt to justify humanity as good despite the great evils humanity has been responsible for) and cosmodicy (the attempt to justify the universe as good in face of the great evils it contains). It is necessary for atheists to do so because the atheist worldview falls apart without faith in the goodness of humanity or the universe. These disciplines are as difficult as theodicy is.
J. Matthew Ashley explains the relationship between theodicy, anthropodicy and cosmodicy:
- In classical terms, this is to broach the problem of theodicy: how to think about God in the face of the presence of suffering in God's creation. After God's dethronement as the subject of history, the question rebounds to the new subject of history: the human being. As a consequence, theodicy becomes anthropodicy — justifications of our faith in humanity as the subject of history, in the face of the suffering that is so inextricably woven into the history that humanity makes. Mutatis mutandis, the universe story brings with it the need for a "cosmodicy." How do we think about the presence of suffering, on a massive scale, in the story of the cosmos, particularly when the cosmos itself is understood to be the subject of history? How do we justify our faith in the cosmos?
So, the depth to which we try to objectify our existential experience of evil is merely a reflection of the depth to which we hold the good and the rational to be at once objective and transcendent. The very standards of good-and-evil by which the existence of God is rejected as impossible are rendered epistemologically impotent if God really does not exist. In other words, if it were true that God does not exist, and, thus, that there is no universal standard, or source, of right and wrong, then the argument from evil would be invalid. The argument from evil is like using the tools and materials for building a house to tear down an existing house, and then, since there is no house there, concluding that a house is an impossible kind of object.
Apart from viewing the indifferent cosmos as most essentially pro-human, the denial of the existence of God renders human beings as essentially no better than animals. So, to the extent that humans view animals as having no inalienable rights, such as in regard to the human need to eat meat, and such as the acceptance by humans of animal cruelty against animals as the admirability of 'an integral part of Nature's way', atheism has no objective standard by which either to deny that any kind of violence by humans to humans is anything but part of 'Nature', or to assert that the simple killing of humans by some higher life form is abhorant to 'Nature'.
Those who object to God's typical inaction with regard to human conflict and human plight feel that if God were truly good and truly omnipotent, then God would be stepping in every time injustice is done to one person or group by another. But, no descendent of Adam is essentially more moral than the worst known tyrants in history, else we must explain their tyranny as the product of an essentially lesser and immoral kind of being which merely looks human. No tyrant in history was born practicing the evils he is known for, and every tyrant-in-waiting will, if opportunities fully allow it, strive for his own peace to the detriment of his fellows. This means that no descendent of Adam is as good as he thinks he is during his days of being the underdog. Lack of opportunity to succeed tyrannically in our own selfish interests means only that we tend to focus on how we may best survive by being good. This is what gives us our sense that we are essentially more worthy of God's intervention than are murderous tyrants, when, in fact, we all, including tyrants, are entirely unworthy. David understood this long before he became King of Israel, which is a key reason for why God called him the 'apple of my eye'.
- Plantinga, Alvin: God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).
- Plantinga, Alvin: God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing Co, 1977).
- Genesis 2:17
- J. Matthew Ashley, "Reading the universe story theologically: the contribution of a biblical narrative imagination", Theological studies, 2010, vol. 71, no. 4, pp. 870-902