The Problem of Evil

The most weighty of the arguments against God’s existence is the problem of evil. Of all the atheistic arguments, this is the one that has been around for longest, that has had the most words written about it, and that draws the most diverse responses from Christians.

In brief, the problem is this: The traditional conception of God is as omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and benevolent. This implies that if God exists then he knows how to, wants to, and is able to prevent all suffering. If such a God existed, though, then he actually would prevent all suffering. Suffering, though, is a familiar part of the world around us; it has not been prevented. There is, therefore, no omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God.

There are many different responses to the problem of evil. None of them is entirely satisfactory alone, but together they do cast doubt on whether the existence of evil disproves the claim that God exists.

The first response to the problem of evil is the free-will defence. Much of the evil in the world occurs only because we choose to create it. The greatest evils in the world are those inflicted by man upon man. In making the world, God faced a choice: he could create free agents like us, or he could create automata, robots, without the ability to make choices of their own. God chose to create free agents, and he made the right choice; a world containing free agents is clearly more valuable than a world of robots. The pay-off for this is the abuse of freedom that we see around us. Free agents sometimes choose to abuse their freedom, to do wrong. The wrong that we do, though, the suffering that we cause, great though it may be, is a price worth paying for something that is profoundly valuable: genuine freedom. Though God could have prevented evil by creating a world of automata, it is a good thing that he did not.

The free-will defence is, I believe, a partial success. I believe that it is correct to say that it is better that the world contain agents with significant freedom than that it contains only automata, and I believe that much of the evil that we see around us is a consequence of the abuse of this freedom. Not all evil, however, can be explained in this way. There is much evil that is not inflicted by man. Natural disasters, for example, cause great destruction, but there is nothing that we have done that causes them and there is often nothing that we could have done to prevent them. This brings us to a second response to the problem of evil.

The second response to the problem of evil is that the existence of evil is a necessary condition for the existence of certain kinds of good. There are a number of character traits that are valuable only if evil exists. Compassion, for instance, is of great value, but can only exist if there is suffering. Bravery, too, is a virtue, but only if we sometimes face danger. Self-sacrifice is another great good, but can only exist if there is inter-dependence, if some people find themselves in situations where they need help from others. God created us in such a way that we would depend upon one another, that we would be drawn together to form a community. If each of us were self-sufficient, safe from suffering, then the great goods that come from this would not have been possible.

Again, I believe that there is something to this response to the problem of evil, but that it does not resolve the problem entirely. Though it is clear, I think, that much suffering is justified, that the world would be a worse place without it, it is still simple to point to specific examples of suffering that appear to serve no greater purpose. Each of us has tragedies in our lives, and it seems to us as though the world would have been a better place without those instances of suffering.

The problem of evil, then, must be recast as the problem of unjustified evil. It is clear, for the reasons described above, that not all evil is unjustified. Some evil is brought into the world not by God but by man, and it is better that free agents and some evil exist than that no free agents and no evil exist. Some evil serves a greater purpose, making it possible to see why God allows it to exist. The existence of evil is therefore not evidence against the existence of God; it is only the existence of unjustified evil, evil that serves no greater purpose, that presents a problem for theism.

This revision of the argument from evil, however, introduces into it a point of weakness: though it is obvious that some evil exists, it is less obvious that any unjustified evil exists; unexplained evil, yes, but unjustified? Every event has unforeseeable consequences; a butterfly flapping its wings on one side the pacific can cause a hurricane to strike on the other, and a single word of encouragement or rebuke can make or break someone’s life. It is impossible for us to know, in our finitude, the full consequences of any given event. It is therefore impossible for us to know, with any degree of certainty, whether any given instance of suffering is unjustified, or whether it serves some greater purpose.

This points us to a third way of approaching the problem of evil. The problem of evil argues in one direction, from the existence of evil to the non-existence of God: If there were an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God then there wouldn’t be any evil, but there is evil, and there therefore can’t be an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God. Those who believe in God, however, can argue in the opposite direction, from the existence of God to the non-existence of unjustified evil: If there were an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God then there wouldn’t be any unjustified evil, there is an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God, and there therefore cannot be any unjustified evil.

This will not persuade the atheist, but it shows that discussion of the problem of evil at best results in a stalemate. It is impossible to prove that unjustified evil exists, and it is therefore impossible to use the existence of unjustified evil to prove that God does not exist. Those who believe in God can comfort themselves with the thought that all suffering serves a purpose, that, though it may be impossible for us to fathom the mind of God, God works all things to the good.