GOD & THE PROBLEM OF EVIL
(Un version français de cet article peut être trouver ici.)
The Problem of evil is a human problem, and it is one of the most difficult questions that anyone can try to answer, or even attempt to deal with. Why is that? The problem of evil is a reality that we all deal with in one way or another, because we have all been touched, in one way or another, by evil.
As far back as human history can take us humans have been dealing with pain and suffering. Some of the most well-known ancient cultures explained evil and suffering as being caused by the gods. If I am doing well, flourishing, experiencing success, it is because the gods are pleased with me. If I am suffering, from sickness, or failure, or if I am struck by “bad luck” or am killed, it is because, either I have displeased the gods, or someone has turned the gods against me.
Early philosophers also tried to explain the problem of evil and suffering. Pythagorus explained evil with a divine dualism. A good god is responsible for all the good in the world, and an evil god is responsible for all the evil in the world. The sophists at the time of Plato and Socrates denied the objectivity of truth, and, if truth is not objective, then there is no such thing as goodness or evil. For Plato, and the Neo-Platonists throughout the centuries, the good is the ultimate principle, something like what Christians would call God. Evil couldn’t possibly come from that which is purely good, therefore it had to come from another source. Matter was the source of evil and all evils that we experience come from matter. We should note, at this point, that a common view that was developing in the minds of these great cultures, religions and philosophers, was that evil could not come from that which was perfectly good.
Epicurus seems to be the first philosopher to doubt the goodness of the gods, or of a God, based upon the existence of evil. For Epicurus the existence of evil showed that either the gods were neither good nor just and that they couldn’t help us, or that they didn’t exist.
Buddhism, on the other hand, denies the reality of evil. Claiming that by the rejection of all desires we can attain a higher level of being in which we will experience no evil.
The fact that so many cultures, religions, and philosophers, have tried to explain the reality of evil shows that it is not only a human problem but one of the most important human problems. This is the problem that we will be considering in this session. As we approach the problem of evil we all of a sudden realize that there are, in a sense, two problems: there is the personal problem of evil and there is the philosophical problem of evil. Now, the philosophical problem of evil is inspired by the personal problem of evil, and is somewhat easier to answer. We will be considering the philosophical problem of evil, however, I would like to point out that an answer to the philosophical problem of evil is also an answer to the personal problem of evil, although it may not be the answer that we are looking for, or that we want to hear.
The personal problem of evil can be illustrated by a number of examples. When I was young my grandfather died of brain cancer. A man who was able to do anything all of a sudden was not even able to take care of himself. When I was pursuing my Master’s degree in North Carolina, one of my classmates lost his 6 year old boy to a rare and incurable cancer, and, in the same year the wife of one of my professors lost her unborn baby. How could such horrible things happen to such good people? This is the personal problem of evil. The personal problem of evil can be explained, but, when we are suffering it is not the explanation that cries with us and shows us love. C. S. Lewis, a Christian philosopher, and a man who was also a victim of suffering (He was not a man who necessarily wanted to get married, but he fell in love with a woman later in life, and he lost her to sickness only a few years later.), wrote two books on evil: The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed. In A Grief Observed he records his feelings and thoughts as he dealt with the loss of his only true love. He writes the following words, “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be – or so it feels – welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become...” This is the personal problem of evil. As we begin looking at it, I would like to say, for myself, something that C. S. Lewis says in the preface to his book The Problem of Pain. C. S. Lewis asked to write the book anonymously because, “if I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.”
In this lecture we will explain the problem of evil and how it has been used to deny that God exists. Then we will examine the claims of this argument to see if evil really does pose a problem for the reality of God. Finally we will consider the Christian explanation of evil.
The Problem of Evil and God
Different versions of the argument against God from evil can be found just about anywhere, but, I will be explaining only the two most important versions.
First of all, David Hume, in his book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, puts the problem this way, “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
Hume’s Problem of evil might be explained as follows:
(1) If God is Omni-benevolent, then He wants to prevent evil.
(2) If God is all-powerful, then He is able to prevent evil.
(3) There is evil in the world.
(4) Therefore, either God is not all-powerful, or God is not omni-benevolent, or none of the above.
J. L. Mackie, in an article entitled Evil and Omnipotence, explained the problem of evil in what is probably its most powerful form. He begins by explaining the simplest form of the problem, “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three propositions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false.”
Now, of course, there is no contradiction in the three premises as presented, and Mackie notes this fact. He goes on, however, to say that in order to find a contradiction we must add a couple of premises. “These additional principles are that good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists and that evil exists are incompatible.”
His argument could be explained as follows:
(1) God is Omnipotent.
(2) God is Good.
(3) A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.
(4) There are no limits to what an Omnipotent thing can do.
(5) Evil exists.
(6) Therefore, there is no omnipotent and good God.
The arguments of Mackie and Hume both say essentially the same thing. We can summarize them both in the following argument. We will, however, strengthen the argument by adding an extra premise.
(1) God is supposed to be Omni-benevolent and all-powerful. (Such a being would be powerful enough to prevent evil, and would want to prevent evil.)
(2) God is all-knowing. (An all-knowing being would know how to prevent evil.)
(3) If an all-powerful, all-knowing and good being exists, then evil cannot exist.
(4) It is evident that evil exists in the world.
(5) Therefore an all-powerful, all-knowing and good being does not exist.
It seems then, that the reality of evil is all the proof that is needed to show that God, as understood by most theists, does not exist.
Is There Really a Problem?
In a deductive syllogism, when the argument is logically valid, and the premises are true, the conclusion follows necessarily. In order to show that the conclusion is false you need to show that the premises (at least one) are false. If one premise is false, or can be rejected for one reason or another, then the conclusion does not follow.
I would submit that the conclusion does not follow because some of the main terms in the premises are improperly explained, or improperly defined. The conclusion of the problem of evil, so presented, is due to a number of misconceptions and unexamined presuppositions about evil, goodness, omnipotence and God.
First of all, it is assumed that evil is a positive reality in the same sense that a dog, a tree, or you are a positive reality. This assumption is seen in the first premise where we claim that evil exists. The first question that we need to ask is: in what way does evil exist, and how does that affect the argument? This means what we will need to explain what evil “is”.
The second premise is also home to a number of unexamined presuppositions: (1) goodness is a moral category, (2) to be omnipotent means to be able to do anything – no limits; (3) God can be defined positively.
The third premise is based upon the assumption that Mackie introduces which claims that the good always seeks, in the best way possible, to eliminate evil. Furthermore, this third premise assumes that God is a moral being that can be judged based upon what he does or allows to happen. God is, supposedly, a morally good and all-powerful being, and, so it seems to us, who are moral creatures with some conception of what moral goodness is supposed to look like, a morally good and all powerful being would never permit evil to happen. We hold our standards of morality over God and blame Him for allowing evil to happen. It seems that any being who would allow a 6 year old boy to die from incurable cancer, when he had the power to keep that from happening, could not be morally good.
I would like to challenge all of these assumptions. In order to do this we need to start by acknowledging that we don’t know God as well as we think we do. The problem of evil, as it is advanced in its most powerful form, brings God down to our level. Brian Davies notes that “If you think that evil renders God’s existence impossible or unlikely, you must presumably take yourself to have a fairly good understanding of what God is.”
The first step in our discussion of God is to demonstrate that such a being exists. So, we will begin by demonstrating that God exists, and then, based upon that demonstration we will consider the attributes of God that are most important to the problem of evil. As we move through the following points it will be shown that each of the presuppositions mentioned above are false, and, therefore, that there is no contradiction between the fact of evil and the reality of God. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa Theologiae, begins with the fact of change and demonstrates that God exists. His argument looks something like this (I have presented a much more in-depth consideration of the first way of Aquinas, here.):
(1) Some things in the world change.
(2) Whatever changes is changed by another.
(3) If that which causes a change in another is itself changed, then it is changed by another. If that other is also subject to change, then it is also changed by another, and so on.
(4) An infinite regress of changed changers (or moved movers) is impossible.
(5) Therefore, it is necessary that there exist a first unchanged changer (unmoved mover).
(6) This is what all men take to be God.
This first mover, God, is itself unchanging. Change is the movement of a being that is actual (that exists or is in act) from its current state of being to a different state of being that is only potential at state 1, and this by addition or privation. It is the making actual of some potential. For a being to be unchanging is for it to be pure actuality, meaning that it has no unactualized potentials. It is not in a state of becoming, it simply is. To be actual, however, is what it means to be perfect. That which is perfect is not lacking in anything that it should be. A being that is pure act lacks nothing, therefore, this unmoved mover, God is perfect.
Now, goodness, that which is good, is an analogous term that is understood according to the being to which it is applied. For example, when we say that “that is a good dog”, we do not mean the same thing as when we say, “that is a good steak”, or “that is a good knife”. A good knife is sharp and holds its cutting edge for a long time. A good dog is not sharp, and it has not cutting edge. So, good, applied to dogs, knives, and everything else, picks out different aspects in these different things. However, good is an analogous term because when we say “that is a good dog”, and “that is a good knife”, we are picking out something about both of them that is similar. A good thing is that which is desirable for itself, and not as a means to something else. Now, a thing is desirable in so much as it is perfect, lacking nothing that it should have. For example, the more a knife is perfect, the more it is desirable. So, the more perfect a thing is, the more it is good (in the same way that perfection comes in degrees, goodness also comes in degrees). Now, as we have already seen, the first mover is pure act and absolutely perfect; therefore, the first mover is also absolutely good. Therefore, everything that God is and does is good, lacking nothing that should be present.
Notice, this is not a moral judgment. The good, however, when it comes to humans, is a moral judgment. We know that humans are, by nature, rational animals, so, when we see a human acting according to what is reasonable (or rational) we say that they are good, and this is a moral judgment. We don’t, however, know (in the most precise sense of the term knowledge) what God’s nature is (John, in his first epistle, is very clear that nobody has seen God.), therefore, although we can demonstrate that God is good, we can’t know exactly what it means for God to be good. We do know that God, as good, is that which is more desirable than anything else. Therefore, it is impossible to affirm of God that, because He is good, therefore He would not want to permit evil. This is an illegitimate assumption that brings God down to be like humans. Therefore, we cannot simply assume that an Omni-benevolent being would not permit evil. If this is not a valid assumption, then the argument falls apart.
Going back to the argument for Gods existence, we remember that God is pure act, and as such, that He is perfect and good. Now, power can be understood in at least two ways: active power, and passive power. Passive power is the power to be acted upon; it is the potential to be changed by another. God, as we noted, is pure act, therefore, there is no passive power in God (that is, God is immutable and impassible). However, whatever is in act possesses active power to the extent that it is in act. God, who is pure act, is, therefore, powerful to the highest degree – that is, He is omnipotent. When we say that God is all-powerful we mean that God is able to do all things that are absolutely possible to do. Anything that can be brought about can be brought about by God. Negatively, this means that anything that is absolutely impossible, such as doing something that is logically contradictory, cannot be brought about. Now, in the same way that committing an evil action is not seen as a positive power, but rather, as a lack of power, or incapacity to resist the temptation to do evil, so, it is not a lack, nor a limit, to say that God cannot do anything that is logically contradictory or absolutely impossible. It seems, therefore, evident that though we say that there are no limits to Gods power, this does not mean that he can do strictly anything. There are some things that God cannot do, because they are absolutely impossible. This, therefore, shows that Mackie’s second assumption is false, and, serves as a second refutation of the argument from evil against God.
Now that we have demonstrated that God exists, and defined what it means for God to be all-powerful & good, it should be evident that the assumptions behind the argument against God from evil are false, and that the conclusion, therefore, does not follow. Furthermore, we have a positive argument based upon change in the world that shows, positively, that God does exist. In fact, Peter Kreeft, an American philosopher, says in his book Making Sense Out of Suffering, “there may be one very good argument against God – evil – but there are many more good arguments for God. In fact, there are at least fifteen different arguments for God.” As we have already seen, the argument from evil is really not as good as it is made out to be. We have not, however, accounted for evil. Evil may not prove that God cannot exist, but how then do we explain it? Our final point, the Christian explanation of evil, follows naturally from what we have just said, and it will put the final nail into the coffin of the problem of evil.
The Christian Explanation of Evil
As we saw in the previous section, good was defined as that which is desirable for itself, and we noted that a thing is good insomuch as it is perfect. The more that a thing is perfect, in perfect possession of its nature – lacking nothing that it is supposed to be, the more it is desirable, and therefore, the more it is good. Evil, therefore, should be defined as a lack of perfection, or a lack of being. Evil is a privation of being. So, a thing is good insomuch as it exists and to that degree of which it is perfect, and evil is that which is lacking. Evil, therefore, does not have being, or existence, in and of itself; evil does not have positive existence. Evil can only be found in something that exists, in some good. It is like a parasite, it can only exist with a host. Like rust on a car, if there is no car, then there is not even the possibility for rust. Therefore, whenever, and wherever, we find something that does not perfectly possess its nature, we will find evil. For example, a human act, such as eating, is good insomuch as it attains its purpose – the nourishment of the human body; but it is evil insomuch as it misses that goal (i.e. – gluttony, or eating something that will kill you). Talking is a good human act, but the purpose of talking, in general, is to communicate truth, so, to lie is evil as it does not achieve the purpose of the human act, it misses the goal.
We can see, therefore, that the fourth premise, as it stands, is in need of precision, and therefore is false. There is evil in the world, but only because there is a world. This last sentence begs explanation. Some philosophers (i.e. - Leibniz, Alvin Plantinga) have argued that this is the best possible world – that God couldn’t have created a better world. This is a highly debatable claim, but that is not the claim that I am making.
First of all, we should note that to be created is to be finite, meaning, to be limited in one’s nature. It is impossible to create an infinite being as ‘being created’ and ‘being infinite’ are states of being that are mutually exclusive.
Secondly, every finite being is limited in varying ways. Rocks have more limitations than plants, which have more limitations than animals, which are more limited than humans, etc. Humans are limited in many ways, but it is important to note that we are limited in that we do not possess all knowledge, all power, or absolute goodness. Therefore, it seems that in order to create anything at all it was necessary to allow for the possibility of some evil. This is not the best possible world in the sense that God could have made one more good dog, and one more good dog would have made this world better. However, as many philosophers have noted, it certainly seems like a contradiction of terms to create a free creature that always chooses to do what is right. The fact that we have free-will, and that we can choose what is good, certainly seems to imply that we can also choose what is evil. Not only that, but, in any created world, the goodness of some being that is flourishing, for example a parasite, will, of necessity, impinge upon the goodness of some other being and keep it from flourishing, for example a human that got the parasite from drinking contaminated water.
There is, therefore, no problem of Evil. Good can exist without evil, such as God existing without creation, but evil cannot “exist” without good. As such, the fact that evil “exists” is not, in any way, proof that God does not exist. Rather, the fact that evil exists seems to be proof that God exists. If God did not exist, then nothing would exist, and if nothing existed, then neither would evil exist. Now, anyone who is going to try to bring the reality of evil as proof of the non-existence of the Christian God must, necessarily, consider the Christian explanation of evil, where it comes from, and how God is dealing with it.
Genesis, the first book of the Christian Bible, tells us that evil entered the world primarily due to the free choice of the first humans - A free choice to rebel against the only law that God had explicitly stated. According to the Bible it is primarily due to the free-will and fall of humanity that both natural and moral evil exist in the world. Now, natural evil is any suffering that is caused when the good of one creature gets in the way of the flourishing of another creature. Examples of natural evil are: the deaths or injuries caused by earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, viruses or other sicknesses, or the feeding of one animal upon another. Moral evils are the result of free-will, they happen when humans act immorally. Moral evil is not only the immediate results of immoral human actions, but also the distant future results of those same actions. Examples of moral evils are: murder, rape, substance abuse, stealing, and many other human actions which not only have an immediate effect, but also, in many cases affect the families of those touched by these evil acts for many generations. Every evil falls into one of these two types of evil: Natural or Moral. In Christian theology both of these types of evil are directly related to the free-will choices, and the fall into sin, of humanity.
God, however, did not simply condemn humanity to eternal judgment, nor did He just leave us alone to live out our lives in misery. God promised, from the very beginning to vanquish all evil. The first place where we find this promise is in Genesis 3:15, where God foretells the defeat of the tempter by the offspring of Eve. That promise saw its fulfillment when God, the second person of the trinity – Jesus, took on human flesh and lived a human life. He experienced the evil that we humans experience, without committing any evil himself. Being a perfect man, he endured the same evils that so shock and abhor us. He was perfect, and he treated all humans equally, both men and women, but, in spite of His goodness (perhaps because of it), he was rejected, beaten, laughed at, ridiculed, tortured, violently separated from his earthly mother, scorned and rejected by his earthly brothers, and rejected and punished by his heavenly father. Not having sinned himself he bore the sins of humanity, and he suffered God’s wrath for our sins. Gods’ solution for evil, both moral and natural, was not, to never create, but to suffer with us, and to bear the just penalty for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to. God’s solution for evil is Jesus on that cross.
C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961; repr., New York: Harper Collins Books, 2000), 5-6.
C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; repr., New York: Harper Collins Books, 2000), xi.
David Hume, “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion,” in Modern and Contemporary, vol. 2 of Classics of Philosophy, ed. Louis P. Pojman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 757.
J. L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, vol. 64, no. 254 (Apr., 1955), 200.
One could always accept the conclusion of the argument, as some modern theologians seem to be doing, and simply claim that the Christian God is simply not all-knowing. Therefore, he would be as surprised by the evil that happens to us as we are, but, being all-powerful & all-good, He is able to bring good out of the evil. Cf. Gregory A. Boyd, God of the Possible (2000; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008).
Interestingly enough, Mackie notes that the explanation that I am about to give does not fall prey to the problem of evil as he explains it. Cf. Mackie, 201-2.
The way in which I propose, as the best way of responding to the problem of evil, is essentially the same as that which is presented by Brian Davies in his book The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil (London: Continuum, 2006).
Brian Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil (London: Continuum, 2006), 58.
Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. The Fathers of the English Dominican Province (1948; repr., Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 1:13.
Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out of Suffering (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1986), 30.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (1974; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977).
Aquinas puts a lot of emphasis on the hierarchy of being which is evident in our created universe. He claims that God, in creating the universe could not possibly have revealed himself entirely in any one creature (as that creature would have had to be infinite which is a contradiction of terms). The only way that He could truly reveal himself in creation was to create a hierarchy of being which illustrates, or pictures, the greatness of his diversity and unity. Cf. Etienne Gilson, The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, 3rd ed., trans. Edward Bullough (New York: Dorset Press, 1945), 153-55.
Furthermore, as some philosophers have noted, the very fact that we are able to discriminate between what is evil and what is good implies that there is some standard of goodness to which we are comparing the good and evil things that we find in our universe. This standard of goodness, some have argued, is God. Cf. C. S. Lewis, “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”, in Broadcast Talks, 9-33 (1941; repr., London: Geoffrey Bles, 1951). C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; repr., London: Fontana Books, 1956).
Cf. Gen. 2-3, Rom. 8:18-23.