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The Problem of Evil

One very popular argument against the existence of God is the Problem of Evil. The argument states that there is no way a supremely good God could allow evil to exist, because God allowing evil to exist is contrary to his nature. Hence, the challenge for theism becomes, “How can a good God allow evil to exist?” In this article, I will attempt to answer that question. Before going on, I’d like explain a few terms. There are two kinds of evil: moral evil (caused by the free will of people) and natural evil (caused by nature, such as diseases and natural disasters).[1] An argument that tries to explain how God can permit evil to exist is called a theodicy.[2]

Some argue that if God exists, then He is to blame for moral evil. Why? Because God is the one who created us. But that does not logically follow, given that we are creatures with free will. Suppose that a husband and his wife “create” a son that grows up to be a man. Now suppose that, despite the parents’ moral teachings, the man commits murder. Are the parents at fault? No, because the son has free will. If the son freely chooses to do evil, then he alone is responsible for his misdeeds and must suffer the consequences of his actions. God is not the one who brings about the pain and suffering of moral evil in the world. Instead, we humans cause it by misusing our free will. Although evil is not necessary for free will to exist, the possibility of it is. Humanity has chosen (numerous times) to misuse its free will, and when we do, we suffer the consequences. But if we chose to live as morally perfect people, none of the murders, wars, and tortures would have taken place. When these evil things do happen, we are to blame. God is not obligated to prevent humanity from accepting the responsibilities and consequences of our actions. Because such evil is our fault, we do have the ability to fix it. We could, after many years of cooperative effort, eliminate poverty, hunger, and illiteracy. But we don’t because we choose not to do so. Why do we allow ourselves to suffer so much? Perhaps this is the real problem of evil.

But what about natural evil? One idea comes from religion. According to Genesis, natural evil is curse God made to punish humanity, a curse that was triggered when Adam and Eve sinned. This is not to say that the rest of humanity is paying for their mistakes. All of us have sinned in one way or another, contributing our part to the punishment.[3] One point worth considering is that mankind brings evil on itself sporadically and not equally on all individuals or according to how good each individual has been. Thus, one possibility is that as a punishment for mankind’s erratically inflicting evil, God mirrored that nature of moral evil onto natural evil. Natural evil could be thought of as a sort of pollution that results from moral evil. Just as a significant amount of pollution on Earth is brought about by the misuse of humanity’s free will, so does natural evil contaminate in the world as a result of humankind’s moral evil according to this theory. In short, natural evil exists possibly because moral evil exists. It is both a punishment and a reflection of what we do to ourselves. The argument of appealing to free will to explain how God can allow evil is called the free will theodicy[4] and was popularized by St. Augustine.

However, the free will defense deals with the responsibilities of humanity as a whole and does not cover the topic of individual justice. Because of this, the theodicy is not a complete explanation. Terrible deaths of good people have been made at the hands of the wicked who often have easier lives than the innocent sufferers. So although the free will theodicy would explain why moral and natural evil are the fault of humanity as a whole, what about justice for individuals? The sporadic evil allowed by God would seem to preclude that. Evil people have brutally persecuted the innocent, and the wicked often have more comfortable lives then their victims. How can a God who is good allow such unfairness? One idea is what I will call the afterlife theodicy. Most people eventually die anyway. This theory allows for final justice for everyone in the end, with the righteous (or “saved”) enjoying everlasting life.

Imagine a person is saddened after losing ten thousand dollars one morning. In the afternoon however, he unexpectedly earns a million dollars. Losing ten thousand dollars is bad, but on the whole, was this a bad day? Probably not. Potentially, one could see one’s existence in the same way with an afterlife, where the just are rewarded with everlasting life and the guilty are punished.

Does the aforementioned afterlife theory remove the problem of evil? No, but it mitigates it. I do not mean to say it makes evil any less evil, lest one should argue that the afterlife trivializes it somehow. In an absolute sense, evil remains equally wrong with or without an afterlife. Nonetheless, such an afterlife would make the world less evil. For example, since the afterlife scenario guarantees final justice for all individuals, it would instill justice where there would otherwise be injustice. And while existing with a finite period of pain (as an innocent sufferer in life) is bad, having existence is far more worthwhile, perhaps infinitely so, if there is infinitely more good than harm (as via everlasting life). So on the whole the world could have infinitely more good than evil, while still allowing humanity as whole to choose its own destiny. So the atheist may be right about evil being a problem for theism; however, the atheist may be also wrong about how big the problem is. God allowing evil becomes more plausible if God sets up the world to have infinitely more good than evil.

As suggested earlier, the free will and afterlife theodicies complement each other: humanity as a whole would accept the full consequences for the erratic evil it unleashes upon itself and at the same time each individual would get what he or she deserves. Furthermore, the afterlife theodicy does have a great deal of Biblical support.[5] Because the idea is an inherent concept of Christianity that dates back to its founding, the afterlife theodicy perhaps cannot correctly be called an ad hoc hypothesis. It should be noted that I have only attempted to offer a way God could allow evil to exist. I suspect that there are probably other reasons also. For example, God could allow evil to punish the guilty (the punishment theodicy), to build character (the soul-making theodicy, popularized by Irenaeus and later John Hick; it is sometimes called the Irenaean theodicy), and so forth. There may also be reasons for which we cannot comprehend (an idea that is sometimes called the element of mystery). The argument of appealing to the mysterious nature of God may sound like a desperate ploy (as it did to me), but on closer examination it is a legitimate possibility. One cannot reasonably expect a tiny infant to comprehend the most advanced theories of Albert Einstein. Similarly, we cannot rationally expect to fathom all the intentions and goals of a supremely wise and intelligent Being. A comprehended God is not God. If God exists, we should not expect to know the "why" behind everything; perhaps we cannot reasonably expect to know the "why" behind most things. God's mind would be infinitely beyond our own, after all. So if God does allow evil, would our finite minds would necessarily understand the "why" here? Potentially not.

Unanswered Questions

In spite of all this though, there still remains unanswered questions. The evidence is not 100% completely supportive in favor of either philosophical belief (i.e. atheism vs. theism) in explaining the problem of evil. For instance, wouldn’t it be better off to not allow the existence of natural evil, rather than using it as a reflection and punishment of our own evil? Why wouldn’t be better to allow only moral evil? Also, exactly why wouldn’t it be better to have the consequences of misusing our free will to be less severe? Perhaps because that’s the sort of consequences humanity deserves for its misuse of free will, but I still do not in any rigorous sense have answers to those questions, and perhaps we never will due to the inherent element of mystery that results if God actually exists. Remember, this is at best a satisfactorily explanation of how God could allow evil to exist. Even if the explanation is satisfactory in this sense, some unanswered questions still remain and reason is not all one-sided in favor of theism (even if it is mostly in favor of theism). These two questions can lead one to ask another: are things like free will even worth all the suffering?

Is it worth it?

One objection that could be raised is that things like free will and the responsibility that comes with it are not worth the evil that we have in the world, and thus the theodicies are not adequate. Is free will so precious that it’s worth all this? How valuable is it really? Consider this scenario I’ll call “happy land:”

A world were everybody is bed-ridden and continuously fed drugs so that they are in a state of extreme bliss all the time. One can’t exercise free will much in such a condition, but on the other hand there are no murders, rapes, thefts, or any other misdeeds that humanity would otherwise inflict upon itself. There is world peace and great contentment for all.

Given the circumstances in the real world, which would you rather have and why? The world as it has existed, or happy land? I’m not claiming happy land is the only logically possible alternative for the real world, but it’s something to think about regarding the value of free will. If you would choose the real world over happy land (as most I’ve talked to would), you must think free will is pretty important, which is in itself an amazing revelation concerning the problem of evil. Maybe some things are more important than mere pleasure and the lack of pain, and maybe these things are worth all the evil that exists in this world.

[1] Stecher, Carl “Looking for God in all the wrong places. (Exploring the Humanist philosophy).” Vol. 58, The Humanist, April 5, 1998; pp 25(6)
[2] Morris, Tom Philosophy for Dummies Foster City, CA.: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. 1999 p. 269
[3] Romans 5:12 NIV states “…and in this way death came to all men, because all have sinned—”
[4] Morris, Tom Philosophy for Dummies Foster City, CA.: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. 1999 p. 271
[5] The following is only a sample: Matthew 5:10-12(most supportive in the book); 6:19-21; 13: 37-43; 25:31-46. Mark 13:9-12. Luke 6:20-26; 12:32-34; 16:19-25 (most supportive in the book). Romans 2:6. 2 Corinthians 4:17; 5:10. Revelation 20:12 (judgment day).