The Problem Of Evil
Thomas Ash

One of the major problems with belief in a God is reconciling this belief with all the evil and suffering in the world. Traditional theism believes in a God who is omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent, so it is a great problem why the world has so much suffering, some of it on an overwhelming scale and depth, such as, for example, the millions of innocents killed in the Holocaust or any one of the vast famines that have riddled history.

This problem, widely known as the problem of evil (though the problem of suffering might perhaps be a more apt name, as it extends to all sorts of suffering) has long been a major cause for questioning God's existence, but it was first stated as an argument against this by the 18th century philosopher David Hume. It is basically the very simple chain of reasoning that says that if God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent, he would know about the great suffering in the world, have the ability to stop it (as omnipotent), and choose to.

The conclusion is that given the inisputable evidence of great, and often clearly needless, suffering in the world, God cannot logically be all three, or he may not exist at all. In practice, even if God's omniscience is limited by the objection that he cannot know all the evil the future has in store, there are some continuing current evils in the world, like flooding and starvation, in which any truly benevolent God would be expected to intervene. Since omnipotence, omniscience and benevolence are three absolutely fundamental properties of the God of Classical Theism (that is the God of three major montheistic world religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam), the problem of evil poses a major philosophical question that any religious believer must answer.

An additional factor which strengthens the problem of evil is that God is supposed to have created the world. Yet it is anapparently uncaring world, with not only a number of species in fierce, ruthless and often bloody competition with each other, but also instances of natural 'evil' such as volcanoes and earthquakes. It could well be asked why God chose to create these features, surely unavoidable to an omnipotent creator, as they create great, completely indiscriminate suffering for which no human can be balmed, and against which humans have been utterly helpless for much of history.

It does not take a genius to see that the problem of evil poses a great difficulty for religion. Over the centuries, several different arguments against it (called theodicies) have been formulated. These range from saying that humans, not God, are responsible for suffering to claiming that suffering does not actually exist.

St Augustine came up with one of the oldest of these. He claimed that God made a perfect world, but that humans turned away from God of their own free will, and that that is how evil came into the world. This obviously has a biblical basis in the story of Adam comitting the original sin of eating the apple, and as, according to Augustine, we were all 'seminally present' in Adam, we are all bear the guilt of his sin. This is why there is natural evil in the world, with earthquakes and volcanoes, as we are all being punished for this original sin.

But there are a number of problems with this argument. First of all, it is hard to see how God's creation went so wrong if God created it perfect. As the philosopher Schleiermacher pointed out, the evil must have come from somewhere, but if God created the whole world, including us, perfect (as was clearly possible for an omnipotent being, and as Augustine claims) there could be no way for it to have gone wrong. Secondly, and most importantly, Augustine's argument has simply been superceded by science. Volcanoes have been on the surface of the earth for millenia before humans ever emerged and are governed by natural laws that neither know nor care that they cause human suffering. The blind, uncaring nature of these natural laws and of nature generally make this look very unlike the sort of world God would create. And of course Adam and Eve never existed, so there was no original sin. Even if there had been, it is today recognized as a very morally suspect notion that children should be punished for the sins of their parents, and we were not all seminally present in Adam, so we could not be responsible for his sin.

Another response to the problem of evil that has been offered is the Irenaean theodicy. Irenaeus (c130-202 AD) was an early Christian, earlier than Augustine, who, unlike Augustine, said that God had not made humans or the world flawless. This was because he thought that genuine human perfection could not come about except through humans achieving it through their own free will, in an imperfect world in which there was a very real possibility of evil.

This is in many ways much closer to the modern conception of how the problem of evil can be answered, but it suffers from several flaws. It is certainly plausible that free will adds something of value to human existence, and if God had created zombies, that would have been less worthwhile. A knowledge of good and bad might also be worthwhile, and this would require some bad to be available to be known. It is also true that without natural 'evil' to some extent, there would not be so much opportunity for people to make moral choices as there would be an abundance of resources and no need to compete and less opportunity for putting people in a position where they could be harmed. These are a number of important points, and weigh against too hastiy thinking an idyllic paradise world would be ideal - it would make us too like contented animals.

However, as with the Augustinian theodicy, the world just doesn't fit this model. Much of the suffering we see is clearly indiscriminate and gratuitous and, as I said earlier, often the result of blind earthquakes and the like which point to a naturalistic world not constructed for us. Many people face disproportionally tougher lives due to accidents of geography (as in floodprone Bangladesh) while it is difficult so see how infants who die early on get much of a chance at Irenaeus's 'soul-making.' It is not difficult to see how the circumstance of the world could be changed to avoid this. Also, a striking injustice in Irenaeus' model is how hundreds of earlier generations have to go through much suffering so that later generations can achieve the perfection he thinks they ultimately will.

This leads us onto a broader flaw in both this theodicy and the widespread free will defence. Both of these asume that humans can eventually reach a state of high goodness, where they always choose to do good out of their own free will. If this is the case, then why couldn't God have created us this way to start with? It would obviously be possible, and just a matter of duplicating the sort of humans we are bound to eventually achieve. It could be thought that the journey is more valuable than the actual arrival, but can the intrinsic value of passing through a period of suffering actually be pinpointed? It is difficult to see how a trite saying about anticipation of your next holiday can justify millions of human deaths in events like the Holocaust. Have these events really achieved something which balances out the atrocities involved? While it is possible for good to come out of suffering, equally good people can come out of thinking, sensititivity and a loving upbringing.

This point is further strengthened by the philosophical doctrine of determinism. This points out that people do not make 'evil' decisions completely on a whim, without any causes leading up to this decision. If this is the case, then the unbroken chain of background causes to each evil action (following unbreakable natural laws) always leads back to God, and the way he created the world. He made it such that criminals have bad bringings up, or live in poverty, or fail to truly appreciate the consequences of their actions, or whatever part of them it is that accounts for their actions.

This argues heavily against the use of free will to account for the evil we see around us in the world, and still keep an all powerful, all loving God. One response is to say that there is actually no evil in the world, and if we saw the complete picture, we would see that God has made the universe in its ideal form. This idea, known as Monism, has been suggested by the likes of Spinoza and Leibniz. Yet it is nonetheless an unfounded leap to an improbable conclusion based only on a desire to reconcile appearances to God's existence. It is also faced with the problem that even if the problems we see in the world are actually unfounded, the experience of suffering by millions is very real and very bad.

One of the most recent theodicies, the Process Theodicy, reconciles God with the state of the world by simply not attempting to maintain God's omnipotence. The trouble with this is that it replaces traditional religion with a completely unfounded elaborate theology with no argument for its truth other than its compatability with evil in the world.

But what it does have right is that the only possible response to the problem of evil is to deny the God of Classical Theism, and remove either his omnipotence or his benevolence. There are at least some instances of evil and suffering in this world - such as flooding in bangladesh to mention but one - which none of these theodicies can explain or justify as serving any better pupose. It may contain much good, but it is hard to see this world as the ideal creation of a God making a home for human beings.

© 2002

About the author...
Tom Ash is the webmaster of Big Issue Ground and Atheist Ground. He studied philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. He currently does non-profit work and freelance web development. See more information about Tom Ash.

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