The Problem Of Evil Philosophy Essays

Author: Thomas Metcalf
Category: Philosophy of Religion
Word Count: 1000

The world contains quite a lot of evil: intense suffering, premature death, and moral wickedness. Let’s say that the proposition E is a report of all the facts about the evil in the world.

Many people believe in something like the Anselmian God (Anselm 1965 [1077-78]: ch. 2): an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and morally perfect being. This inspires a question: Why would God permit E? The question is sometimes rhetorical: He wouldn’t, and so He does not exist.

Let’s take a look at whether E provides a reason to disbelieve in God. There are four things one might say about E, ranging from that it deductively proves that God does not exist to that it provides no evidence at all against God’s existence.

1. The Incompatibility Problem of Evil

According to ‘Incompatibility’ or ‘Logical’ versions of the Problem of Evil, E is logically incompatible with God’s existence (Mackie 1955). That means that believing in E and believing in God is like believing in a five-sided square.

Most philosophers today reject this argument (Rowe 1979: 335). They think that it is possible to tell a coherent story according to which God has some morally sufficient reason to permit E. As long as that story is, for all we know, logically possibly true, that might seem enough to refute the Incompatibility Problem of Evil; it shows that it is not contradictory to believe in God and E.

2. The Evidential Problem of Evil

Other philosophers hold that evil does not prove that God does not exist, but instead, that it provides good evidence against His existence (Rowe 1979; Draper 1989; Tooley 2014: § 3.2.1).

If evil does not decisively prove that God does not exist, then we must ask how much evidence it does provide, and weigh that against the evidence (if any) for God’s existence. This will obviously be very complicated. But most philosophers reject most arguments for God’s existence (Bourget and Chalmers 2014), and there are probably billions of instances of inscrutable evil in the world: evil such that we do not know why God would permit it. Most think that if even one of these instances is gratuitous—pointless, that is—then God would not exist (Howard-Snyder and Howard-Snyder 1999). So the theist must find an explanation or set of explanations that in principle could plausibly justify all evil.

Part of the project of downplaying the evidence from evil is trying to find a plausible theodicy or other defense: an explanation of why God would permit that evil or why that evil is not as evidentially weighty as it initially seems. Here’s a summary of the two best defenses.

2.1. Free Will

Many theists hold that humans’ having significant free will is a very great good, one that is worth the evil that sometimes arises from it (Plantinga 1977: 29-59). For this to be plausible as an explanation of E, this depends on justifying some or all of the following claims: (a) some creatures have libertarian free will (a belief that is mostly rejected by philosophers (Bourget and Chalmers 2014)); (b) (e.g.) Stalin’s free will is more valuable than the lives of the millions he killed (including, presumably, their free-will choices to remain alive); (c) God morally must let us have not only our decisions but also the effects that result from them; and (d) even apparently natural disasters and disease, including those that harm nonhuman animals (Rowe 1979: 337), are all the result (e.g.) of free-willed evil-spirits’ choices (Plantinga 1977: 58).

2.2. Soul-Making

Perhaps encountering evil and freely responding to it develops various virtues in humanity, such as compassion, generosity, and courage (Hick 2007: 253-61). For this to explain E, the theist may need to argue that: (a) God could not have developed those virtues in us any other way equally valuable but less harmful (e.g. by creating humans who are more morally sensitive in the first place and reducing evil accordingly); (b) all evil can reasonably be expected to contribute to soul-making; and (c) the compassion Smith develops when she sees Jones suffering justifies God using Jones (or allowing Jones to be used) as a means to the end of producing that compassion (cf. Kant 1987 [1785]: 4:429; Trakakis 2008).

3. Outweighing Evidence?

The theist might argue that there is so much evidence for God’s existence that we are justified in being confident that God has a purpose for all evil (cf. Rowe 1979: 338). We obviously cannot consider those arguments here, so we should at least recall how many billions of instances of severe, inscrutable evil there are in the world, and adjust one’s requirements on evidence for God’s existence accordingly. We must also recall, again, that a strong majority of philosophers rejects theism (Bourget and Chalmers 2014), and so philosophers in general seem to have a dim view of the idea that there is good evidence for God’s existence. Therefore, this strategy probably depends on marshalling a set of generally-rejected arguments in order to explain billions of inscrutable evils.

4. Evil Is No Evidence?

Some argue that humans should not expect to understand why God would permit evil, and so we should not be confident in our ability to assess whether some evil is gratuitous: such that God could have prevented it without thereby sacrificing an equal or greater good and without thereby permitting an equal or worse evil (Howard-Snyder and Howard-Snyder 1999: 115). Others say that God’s existence is actually compatible with gratuitous evil after all (van Inwagen 2000; Kraay 2010), although most philosophers disagree (Howard-Snyder and Howard-Snyder 1999; Trakakis 2003). Perhaps these defenses should say that evil is no evidence against God’s existence, since if each particular evil is even a little bit of evidence against God’s existence, the billions and billions of them in history really pile up.

God might have a purpose for all the evil in the world, a purpose that we do not or cannot understand, and so we should not trust our doubt that some evil in the world is justified (Wykstra 1998). Typically, this inspires the question of whether a similar argument can be made about other beliefs we have, thereby threatening to produce a deep, general skepticism about science, morality, and arguments for God’s existence (Draper 1998: 188; Russell 1998: 196-98). If God works in mysterious ways, how do I assess the likelihood that God has some inscrutable reason for tricking me into (wrongly) thinking that other minds exist, that the past exists, that an external world exists, and that I ought to save a child drowning in a shallow pond? This is perhaps the primary focus of the debate about the Problem of Evil in recent years.


Anselm. (1965 [1077-78]). St. Anselm’s Proslogion. Tr. M. J. Charlesworth. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Bourget, David and David J. Chalmers. (2014). “What Do Philosophers Believe?” Philosophical Studies, forthcoming.

Draper, Paul. (1989). “Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists.” Noûs 23: 331-50.

———. (1998). “The Skeptical Theist.” In Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 175-92.

Hick, John. (2007). Evil and the God of Love. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Howard-Snyder, Daniel and Frances Howard-Snyder. (1999). “Is Theism Compatible with Gratuitous Evil?” American Philosophical Quarterly 36 (2): 115-30.

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. In Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy. Ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Kraay, Klaas J. “Theism, Possible Worlds, and the Multiverse.” Philosophical Studies 147 (2010), pp. 255-68.

Mackie, J. L. (1955). “Evil and Omnipotence.” Mind 64 (254): 200-12.

Plantinga, Alvin. (1977). God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Rowe, William. (1979). “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism.” American Philosophical Quarterly 16(4): 335-41.

Russell, Bruce. (1998). “Defenseless.” In Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 193-205.

Tooley, Michael. (2014). “The Problem of Evil.” In Edward N. Zalta (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 edition), URL = <>.

Trakakis, Nick. (2008). “Theodicy: The Solution to the Problem of Evil, or Part of the Problem?” Sophia 47: 161-91.

———. (2003). “God, Gratuitous Evil, and van Inwagen’s Attempt to Reconcile the Two.” Ars Disputandi 3 (1): 1-10.

van Inwagen, Peter. (2000). “The Argument from Particular Horrendous Evils.” Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 74: 65–80.

Wykstra, Stephen John. (1998). “Rowe’s Noseeum Argument from Evil.” In Daniel Howard-Snyder (ed.), The Evidential Argument from Evil. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press: 126-50.

About the Author

Tom is an assistant professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He specializes in ethics, metaethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. Tom has two cats whose names are Hesperus and Phosphorus. Website:

by 1000wordphilosophy

Explain The Problem of Evil - Essay

In this essay I am going to examine the problem of evil. I will split it into two main parts; the problems raised for a religious believer by the existence of evil and the solution or answer to these problems. One of the greatest problems facing a believer in a good, all-powerful god is the existence of what we call evil. The problem of evil is concerned with the undeserved suffering in the universe. The problem of evil only applies to theistic religions; other religions that hold that there are more than one god do not have the same problem. Evil is generally split into two types both causing suffering, moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the evil created by humanity e.g. the holocaust. Natural evil is the evil that is caused by things in nature e.g. a hurricane or an earthquake.

Evil, natural or moral, is thought as bringing about pain and suffering. Many people think of pain simply as a physical feeling in the body, other people like to give it a more scientific definition as a response of the body’s nervous system. Christian scientists believe that pain is just an illusion this idea stems from a monist belief. The problem with this idea is that even if pain was an illusion it is a painful illusion and so if your mind believes you to be in pain than you feel that you are in pain. Although you can say pain is an illusion we can plainly see that someone who has broken their leg or been shot is in pain. Even if pain was an illusion it is still a negative feeling that seems to be out of our control so that we cannot stop feeling this ‘illusion’ whether we wanted to or not.

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The idea that all evil is caused from the devil is comes from a dualist belief. Dualists believe that there are to forces governing humanity the good-God and the evil-Satan. The problem with this is that if god is the all-seeing all-loving all-powerful god of Christianity who created everything, and then he couldn’t have created something that is all evil. Although he is all powerfully so he could have made something all evil he wouldn’t because he is all-loving. Therefore the devil must be separate from god and then we would be speaking about a non-western idea of god. The idea of the devil making all the evil in the universe does not solve the problem of evil it merely gives us someone to blame it on. And so the answer to why god does not stop all the evil is still existent.

God created the universe out of nothing by himself. This means that he is totally responsible for everything that is in the universe. Because he is all-powerful he can do anything that is logically possible. This means that he could create a universe free of evil and suffering. And if something wrong was to occur (which it wouldn’t because god is perfect) he could stop it. Because god is all-knowing he would know how to how to stop the evil if it ever occurred or even how to create a universe were no evil could exist. So as god is all-loving he would want his creation to not to experience evil or suffering because no one who was loving in the sense in which we use the word would want there creations suffer for no reason if they could stop it, which god could because he is all-powerful. Because of all of this it seems that evil should not exist, but it does. So either god is not all-powerful or all-loving or he does not exist at all. It is possible to hold that there was a creator god who started the world, but having established the structure had no ongoing influence over it (deism) or you can take a dualistic view that god is limited by the matter out of which he has created the world.

. Augustine expressed the problem or dilemma about suffering in his 'Confessions' (354-430 CE). Christians believe in a good, all- powerful god so: Either God cannot abolish evil (suffering) or he will not. If he cannot abolish evil (suffering) then he is not all-powerful. If he will not abolish evil (suffering) then he is not all good or all loving. This argument assumes that a good God would eliminate suffering as far as he could. If he is all-powerful, as Christians believe, then he should eliminate all suffering. Yet evil in the form of suffering exists. The problem for Christians can be summarised as: God is omnipotent (all-powerful) God is all loving (benevolent) but evil (suffering) still exists in the world.

Some people say that evil and suffering are all part of gods master plan to make the universe a perfect place. This raises another argument, if god is all-powerful and all-knowing why can’t he have made this universe perfect from the start? Also is it worth all these millions of people dying for the perfect world, surely the holocaust wasn’t necessary for god master plan. John Hospes try to defend the existence of evil by saying: The purpose of evil is not to make us happy, but good or virtuous. The world is a moral training ground for the building of character. Evils are put there to discipline and improve us rather than to punish us.

In this part of the essay I m going to outline two solutions or answers to the problems for religious believers raised in section A. first I In this part of the essay I m going to outline two solutions or answers to the problems for religious believers raised in section A. first I am going to look at Augustine’s theodicy.

I am going to look at Augustine’s theodicy. Augustine thought that everything was good, he saw humanity as falling from god’s perfection because of change and freewill that exists in our universe. Augustine used the phrase ‘privatio boni’ meaning lack of goodness to describe evil. Although things fall from perfection it is not possible for something to become entirely evil, because a complete lack of goodness means non-existence. He thought that everything changed except god (who is immutable) because god is already perfect. Augustine thought that matter was intrinsically good. For Augustine the more ‘good’ you are the more ‘being’ you have so god is ultimate goodness and so he is immortal. He also though that someone in could not be evil themselves but they could do evil acts so evil is just the absence of goodness not as force in its self. He pointed out that Satan was not the cause of all evil but is just the catalyst, the evil was already in Adam and Eve it was just Satan who started it off. Augustine held that the story of Adam and Eve was historical fact. He acknowledges the fact that everyone does things that are wrong and it caused by original sin, which is passed on by sex. Augustine though that god was all-knowing and all-loving. Everyone commits sins the reason for this is original sin. There must be a judgment when you die. So on the day of judgement some will go to heaven some will go to hell. Because god is all knowing he knew already were you are destined to go. Meaning that your fate is predetermined.

This is Augustine’s argument: god is perfect and he made a universe free of defects. God cannot be blamed for the creation of evil because evil is not a thing in its self but just a deprivation off goodness. Evil however comes from the angels and humans who have become corrupted over time because they changed in some way. The chance that evil may exists in the universe is necessary because only god as the creator can be completely perfect. Everyone is equally guilty for the evil in the world because everyone helps to spread it and we were all seminally present in Adam. And so because of this everyone deserves to be punished. Natural evil is a just punishment because people destroyed the natural cycle. Therefore god should not have to help us or remove evil from the world because we started it. Because god saves some people and allows them into heaven shows that he is loving and us. merciful. Although Augustine’s theodicy gives god an excuse to justly punish us for our evil sins. If he were truly merciful then wouldn’t he just save us all? Isn’t the punishment of eternal damnation in hell a bit severe for someone who just didn’t lead a ‘holy’ life? Is it right that someone who may murder a million people get the same punishment as person who killed one? Is it still a ‘just’ punishment? Augustine says that the world was made perfect by god an damaged by humans this contradicts, evolutionary theories state that we have evolved from an earlier state of chaos. So then idea of everything being perfect from the start is hard to accept because of this. Augustine states that every person was seminally present in Adam. This goes against biological laws and would be deemed untrue today and so god is not just in punishing.

Now I am going to look at a different theodicy, that of Irenaeus. Irenaeus thought that evil was linked with the free will of humanity were he differs from Augustine is that he admits that god did not make a perfect world. If we stay with the idea of a loving omnipotent god then suffering and evil need to be explained as part of his intention for the world. They need to find a place within an overall scheme, which can still be seen as the intention of an all-powerful god .

Irenaeus though the opposite to Augustine in that he though that humanity started off child like but moved towards maturity, he also thought that humanity became divine this is called theosis and is common in eastern churches. Irenaeus states that: god wanted to make a perfect world with humans in his image and likeness as stated in genesis 1:26. Human perfection cannot be just made it needs to develop through free will. Because god gave us free will there had to be the potential to disobey him and do wrong. If god intervened whenever we were going to do something wrong there would be no free will so he must leave us alone. Humanity used their free will to disobey god and cause suffering amongst the world. God cannot remove evil from the universe because it would defy our free will. Evil and suffering will eventually disappear and we will all turn into god’s likeness and we will all live in heaven. Therefore god is justified in leaving us alone because the evil is only temporary. Irenaeus thought that in genesis 1:26 the image of god was our intelligence, morality and personality but the likeness of god we would have to develop ourselves. For Irenaeus humanity did choose the path of evil, which is why the world is not perfect. Irenaeus thought that although evil was a negative thing it was also important because without it we could not recognize good. If good comes out of evil, evil also comes out of good probably just as frequently. Bombing a city is evil but it brings around jobs which is good, is this justified?

Irenaeus’ theodicy has two main flaws; the first of these critiques is that the idea of everyone going to heaven seems unjust. This idea contradicts statements in the bible that talk about punishing the wicked and evil people going to hell and so for this reason many religious people do not agree with this idea. For non-religious people too the idea that everyone, even someone that has committed murder, is rewarded by being let into heaven seems unfair and so this idea questions god’s idea of justice. Without consequences for your actions the idea of behaving morally correct becomes pointless because at the end of your life you will be rewarded no matter what. Although soul making may not be able to happen in a perfect world, is the amount of suffering contained in our world really necessary. Surely god could have created a world were the holocaust wasn’t necessary or were earthquakes didn’t kill thousands of people.


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