Problem of Evil

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The problem of evil is a topic of much debate in theology and the philosophy of religion. It has been referred to as 'the rock of atheism', and is one of the major philosophical and emotional reasons for the active disbelief in a traditional monotheistic God. The problem can be expressed as follows:

If the traditional Judeo Christian God exists, then he is omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

Thus, evil would not exist.

However, evil exists.

Therefore, the traditional Judeo Christian God does not exist.

Questioning the Premise

The argument is dismissed by dropping one or more of the three starting givens: that God is omnipotent, that God is omnibenevolent, or that evil exists.


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.


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)


There is also the question of whether an omnibenevolent God should want all evil to be stopped. If the allowance of evil makes possible some greater good, then the allowance of evil itself is not wrong. For instance if the exercise of free will means that evil can occur, is it better to create independent beings and allow free will or to not create at all?

Several theodicies put forward as attempts to give understanding to the problem of evil - for example, by Augustine and Irenaeus, but complete understanding to infinitive questions is not going to be understood in finite beings with finite resources.

Also, there is the mathematical answer to evil. Given that the reward of the faithful is immeasurable bliss for eternity, then any amount of finite pain caused in a finite time period when taken over infinite bliss over infinite time makes the answer to pain zero. It is as if it never existed, and from a mathematical sense in an eternal picture, it never did.

Free Will

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 based upon free will. Rather than try to explain evil with moral justification, Plantinga prefers to establish only that the existence of God and evil are jointly possible. The question of evil then becomes a byproduct of free will existence, not a moral quandry.

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. This view counters theological compatiblism - the view that God can allow human freedom and prevent moral evil - as a logical inconsistency equivalent to a statement like 'God can make a color that is bluer than blue.' Some conditions by their nature can not occur and putting God in front of it does not change that.

Plantinga's proposition suggests 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 will always 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. For that one would have to consider the story of the Fall, and weigh it according to its own merits.


Plantinga, Alvin: God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967).
Plantinga, Alvin: God, Freedom and Evil (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's Publishing Co, 1977).