Friday, September 11, 2009

A Philosophical Response to the Problem of Evil

Undoubtedly the greatest intellectual obstacle to the belief in the existence of God is the widespread and trendy “Problem of Evil” argument. For the Problem of Evil advocate, it just seems unbelievable that an all loving and all-powerful God could permit evil to exist as it has in this world. Indeed, the amount of evil or pain and suffering in this world is beyond measure, whether caused by humans (moral evil)[1] or natural disaster (natural evil); the amount of pain and suffering in the world is unfathomably incalculable. Christian theists in return challenge the contention that the problem of evil posits with a theodicy. This term, theodicy, refers to a counter-argument, which seeks to defend the existence of God including his all powerfulness (omnipotence) and all goodness (omnibenevolence/moral perfection) in light of the evil that exists. Countless attempts by atheistic, agnostic, and non-believers of various types have all shared aims in the attack of theism based on the presence of pain and suffering among the innocent.

Not only is this topic bound to come up in the workplace, at home, or in a classroom setting, but also the believer could be put on the spot, and may not have an adequate answer to give. Perhaps the real problem here is for the believers who are left speechless in a spur-of-the-moment predicament when confronted with the issue. Or it may just be the case that not enough time and preparation takes place in the local Church for such a test. Whether or not the Bible calls for theodicy, one thing is for sure: the Bible calls all believers to be ready in and out of season for the defense of the Gospel (cf. 1 Peter 3:15). And it is safe to say that the attack on theism is an indirect attack on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, when the problem of evil is presented, which is an indirect attack on the message of the gospel, it is the job of the believers to make a defense.

The major proponents of the Problem of Evil are David Hume, J.L. Mackie, Paul Draper, and Richard Gale. Alvin Plantinga, Doug Geivett, and William Lane Craig are the major respondents who offer the theodicy’s that will be considered in this paper. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate and respond to various forms of the problem utilizing a freewill defense. In addition, it will provide some practical conclusions for the believer on the basis of observing the debate and its effect on the contemporary culture/church setting.


The heart of the Problem of Evil lies in an apparent contradiction between God’s attributes of omnibenevolence and omnipotence in light of the existence of evil in the world. The proponent of the argument argues: if God is all loving and all-powerful, since evil exists in the World, either God cannot defeat it, or he will not defeat it. Consequently, if God cannot stop evil, he cannot be omnipotent. And if God does not wish to stop it, he cannot be all loving. The 18th century Scottish skeptic David Hume, in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion posed the questions that stabbed the conscious’ of Christian theists: “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? When then is evil?”[2]

By and large, the common thread that ties all logical formulations together is the apparent contradiction with the existence of evil in the world in light of God’s character. Although the form may vary, the focus of the attack is directed toward theism. Consider the following syllogisms:

Traditional formulation

P1: If evil exists, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God cannot exist.

P2: Evil exists

C: Therefore, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God does not exist.[3]

Expanded form

P1: If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.

P2: If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.

P3: If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.

P4: If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.

P5: Evil exists.

P6: If Evil exists and God exits, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or

doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.

C: Therefore, God doesn’t exist.[4]

Various formulations

P1: If God is perfectly loving, He must wish to abolish evil

P2: If He is all powerful, He must be able to abolish evil

P3: But evil exists

C: Therefore, an all powerful, loving God does not exist.[5]

P1: God is the author of everything.

P2: Evil is something

P3: Therefore, God is the author of evil.[6]

P1: God made everything perfect.

P2: Imperfection cannot come from perfection.

P3/C: Therefore, perfectly created beings cannot be the origin of evil.

C2: Therefore, God must be the origin.[7]

Attack Based on the Persistence of Evil

P1: If God is all good, He would destroy evil

P2: If God is all-powerful, He could destroy evil.

P3: But evil is not destroyed.

C: Hence, there is no such God.[8]

J.L. Mackie, a leading proponent of the argument proposes what he believes is the “simplest form:” “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists.”[9] He goes on to clarify in his celebrated article, “God and Omnipotence,” that God could have created a world where people freely chose to always do good.[10]

In addition to these logical formulations is the “probabilistic” approach, which is not so rigid, and is perhaps a “safer” argument. It says: If evil exists, then it is highly improbable that an omnipotent, morally perfect God exists. If it is highly improbable that an omnipotent, morally perfect God exists, then you should not believe in God. Evil exists. Therefore, it is highly improbable than an omnipotent, morally perfect God exists. Therefore, you should not believe in God. In either the traditional or probabilistic approach, it is understood that such objectors have an agenda to deny God’s existence as well as his attributes of omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Also, it is likely that the problem of evil proponents will accuse their theistic adversaries with irrationality.

In sum, the “problem” arises from the speculation that a perfectly good God would not tolerate evil or suffering to subsist and persist in the world, and that an omniscient and omnipotent God ought to set up an evil-free world in accord with his perfection. Since evil and suffering are noticeably present, it gives the impression that God either intends it that way and is therefore not entirely good; or He lacks an adequate amount of knowledge to foresee pain and suffering, or lacks sufficient power to arrange a world free of pain and suffering.

A Closer Look: Variations of the Problem of Evil[11]

Prior to a response and critique of the problem, a distinction between the two major formulations is needed; namely, the distinction between the “Intellectual problem of evil” and the “Emotional problem of evil.” The first type concerns how to give a rational explanation of the existence of God and evil while the emotional problem of evil focuses on how to comfort those who are going through intense suffering. This emotional problem of evil lies in the territory of the pastor or the counselor while the intellectual problem of evil lies in the area of the philosopher. The answer to the intellectual form appears to be dry and insensitive to someone who is experiencing intense suffering while the answer to the emotional problem of evil will appear shallow and unsatisfactory to someone who is actually contemplating it merely on an academic level. This paper seeks to take a look at both types in hopes of providing sufficient reasons to believe that God co-exists with evil for a season that we are currently living in.

In addition to the intellectual type and the emotional formulations are two versions; namely, the logical version and the probalistic or evidential version. The first version holds that it is logically impossible for both God and evil to co-exist. Since both seem to be incompatible, they say that both cannot exist simultaneously. [12] These proponents all agree that evil exists and thus they build their case that God cannot exists in light of that reality. On the other hand, the probabilistic or evidential version of the problem of evil admits that it is logically possible for God and evil to co-exist, but nevertheless they maintain that it is highly improbable that God exists given the reality of evil in the world. They say, since evil exists, then God probably does not exist.

The Logical version of the problem of evil states that it is logically impossible for God to co-exists with evil; they are two logically incompatible premises. However, at face value, these two statements: God exists and Evil exists are not in and of themselves contradictions. After all there is no explicit inconsistency here. Therefore, the objector is really saying that there are implicitly contradictory. If that is the case then the objector must be assuming something that would bring out this contradiction to make it explicit. The quest for the believer/apologist is to point out those assumptions.

Evaluation and Critique

In any attempt to construct a problem of evil, one must keep in mind that finite man is trying to comprehend an infinite God. Although the skeptics have no problem accepting his omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent attributes, it seems as if they totally disregard the attribute of transcendence, which basically says that God is not limited to what man is capable of understanding. Be that as it may, the task of the apologist is to make a defense for the gospel, which in this case, involves breaking down and responding to their logic.

As it stands, the Problem of Evil argument appears deductively valid. But as is the case with all logical arguments, there are still several ways in which the argument could backfire. First and foremost, an argument could contain a false premise, based on mere assumption. Secondary, it may contain an equivocation. The Problem of Evil violates both of these principles, and thus would be considered an invalid argument. Furthermore, a solid argument must demonstrate that something is true; if the debater cannot fulfill this task, then his or her argument ceases to be a good argument and ought not to be referred to as such.

The Freewill Defense to the Problem of Evil

St. Augustine is perhaps the first great theologian to rebut the contention that theism contains an internal contradiction in, On Free Choice of the Will. This indispensable treatise on the free choice of the will delineates a theodicy, which affirms that God is not the cause of evil; but rather, the individual who exercises his or her freedom.[13] Following in the footsteps of Augustine is Alvin Plantinga, a world-renowned Christian philosopher and professor at the University of Norte Dame. He sums up the free will defense as:

“…an effort to show that there may be a very different kind of good that God can’t bring about without permitting evil… [it] is the idea that of being free with respect to an action (italics mine).”[14]

He goes on to specify that:

“…God can create free creatures, but he can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t’ significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely(italics his).…He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.”[15]

The heart of the Free Will Defense is the belief that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good, but no moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for creating a world containing evil.[16]

Three Apologetic Methods of Response[17]

Alongside the Free Will defense Theodicy rests three major methods of dealing with the Problem of Evil, which makes for a compelling rebuttal. The first method is to point out the unclear allegations, which merely assume what God should do in light of his all-powerfulness and moral perfection. Secondly, there is the option to demonstrate the consistency of the propositions in question. Finally, the responder could provide positive reasons for God’s existence in an effort to cast any undemonstrated inconsistency as only “apparent.” The remainder of this paper will seek to show that by utilizing each methodological principle, the argument, regardless of its form or version will come up invalid. In fact, the first methodological principle alone is sufficient in disproving the validity of the Problem of Evil argument.

The Major Weakness of the Problem of Evil Argument

There are two hidden assumptions in the logical problem of evil. The first assumption is that if God is all-powerful than He could create any world He wishes; namely, a world without evil, pain, or suffering. The second assumption is that if God is all good and loving, than He would prefer a world without evil. If God had the choice of allowing a perfect world or a world with evil, they believe in his all-goodness he would prefer the perfect one otherwise He himself would be evil. The weakness in this argument is that these two assumptions do not logically follow. It is not necessarily true that God’s omnipotence entails that He could create any world He wishes, nor is it necessarily true that His omnibenevolence entails that He would prefer a world with no evil in it.

A good reason for rejecting the first assumption is that God’s omnipotence does not mean He has the power to bring about logical contradictions. He could not create a round square, make 1+1=3, or make something true and not true at the same time and in the same context. Omnipotence does not mean that he can violate the law of non-contradiction. Accordingly, God cannot create impossible worlds. Possible worlds are ones that do not contain within them any logical contradictions. And it is only possible worlds that God is able to create. C.S. Lewis’ book on The Problem of Pain harmonizes all-powerfulness with the problem of evil:

“[God’s] Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. This is no limit to His power. If you choose to say “God can give a creature free will and a the same time withhold free will from it,” you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words “God can.” It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”[18]

The notion of a world where people always choose to freely do good, although it is a possible world, it is not really a feasible world, for certain logically possible worlds are not feasible ones. If they were truly free, then over time, it would probably be the case that eventually some time down the timeline that one individual would deviate from God’s ways and freely choose to do evil. The only way God could prevent this would be to take away that individual free will or to force them to choose good. It is possible that every world God created would result in some sort of evil in it because God created each individual with the freedom to choose between right and wrong; He does not build sinless robots. Such a world is merely a hypothetical one, which may be logically possible, but in all reality may be actually unachievable and perhaps morally less desirable.[19]

The purpose up to this point is to show that although the possible worlds theory may be logically possible, it may not be feasible. Furthermore, there is no logical incompatibility with the co-existence of God and evil. Those facts, side by side do not contradict one another. Thus, the first assumption, namely that God could create any world He wishes, is simply not necessarily true. On those grounds alone, the argument of the logical problem of evil is invalid.

The second assumption needs to be rejected because it is not necessarily true that a morally perfect God would never prefer a world with any moral evil in it over one where it is absent, for he may have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil that he does. Again, this notion of God preferring a world with no evil is merely an assumption, which they only hope is true. Furthermore, it does not seem obvious that just because God is morally perfect, that he has to create a world that is morally perfect. He is justified to allow that evil for the sake of the greater good. His holiness is still safeguarded even though he allows evil in this world.

A few illustrations are helpful in rejecting the second assumption. Imagine a parent who “loves” his or her child so much that he or she shelters them from encountering the evil beyond the shelter of home. Would this parent be regard as a “good” parent? Most people would say that treatment is evil itself. A bad parent is not one who lets their children outside to encounter evil. It is over ridden by the fact that the child will gain life experience in hopes of growing up into a matured individual. In fact, to rob a child of his or her childhood not only is cruel, but it sets up that child for failure. Their first encounter with the “real world” may be too much for them to handle if it comes later on in life. Consider a second illustration regarding child rearing. For parents, there is an overriding morally sufficient reason to discipline their children. Of course the discipline must be given if the child has committed a wrong. A parent who inflicts pain and “suffering” upon their child, is not a bad parent for doing so because there is a morally sufficient reason for doing so; namely, parental discipline, which teaches the child about rules, regulations, and consequences. Take a look at one last illustration of an 8yr old boy named Penuel. For his birthday, we built a skateboard ramp. When it came time for his first “drop in” I realized there was high probability that he would fall and experience some pain. In fact, I knew that he would get hurt eventually; it is an inevitable occurrence in skateboarding. Nonetheless, the reason why I did not prevent him from falling is because I wanted him to have a sense of accomplishment, which he would eventually have after dropping in the ramp. A short time of pain is a small price to pay for the glory that comes in executing a skateboard trick. On his first try, he fell on his rear, but after mastering “drop in,” he became a new kid; he had a sense of pride that experience and courage could only impart. The greater morally sufficient reason in letting this child experience pain was the pride and sense of accomplishment that he gained in the long run. In the same manner, it is likely that God has similar morally sufficient reasons to create a world with the amount of freedom that ours has. He has morally sufficient reasons for allowing humans to feel the effects of living in a fallen world. In light of this, assumption number two is dead; God would not just prefer a morally perfect world just because he is all good and all loving.

Having engaged in the first method of responding the to the Problem of Evil, we can now turn briefly to the second and third methodological principles, which reiterate and reinforce the first method. As mentioned earlier, this second method or response seeks to demonstrate the consistency of the propositions in question. Consider the following two points. First, God could not have created a world with just as much freedom and resultant good as the actual world, but had less evil, whether moral or natural in terms of quantity and quality. Such a world is infeasible. Furthermore, God may have morally sufficient reasons for allowing the amount of freedom into the world he has, with all of its resultant evil. The last method of handling this problem is to simply provide positive reasons to think God does exist in an effort to cast any undemonstrated inconsistency as only “apparent.” That is to say, we can take this argument, which focuses on the reality of evil and turn it around for establishing God’s existence.

Logical Argument from Evil for God

Beyond the simple defense against the problem of evil argument is an attempt to establish theism based upon the existence of evil.

William Lane Craig’s Version

P1: If objective moral values exist, then God exists.

P2: Evil exists.

C1/P3: Therefore objective moral values do exist.

C2: Therefore, God exists.

P1: Evil cannot exist without an opposite

P2: Evil exists.

C1/P3: Therefore objective moral values do exist.

C2: Therefore, God exists.

R. Douglas Geivett’s Version

P1: If evil exists, it is a departure from the way things ought to be.

P2: If evil is a departure from the way things ought to be, then there is a way things ought to be.

P3: If there is a way things ought to be, then there is a design plan for how things ought to be.

P4: If there is a design plan, there is a designer (i.e., God).

P5: Evil exists.

C: Therefore, God exists.

P1: Evil cannot exist without an opposite.

P2: The opposite of evil is objective moral values.

P3: Only God could create objective moral values.

C2: Therefore, God exists.

Each of these logical arguments plays off the direct claims that the problem of evil posits. What the objectors do not realize is that they presuppose an ultimate standard of good with their reference to evil. Josef Pieper says, “the incomprehensibility of evil in the world becomes fully apparent only against the background of the indestructible happiness of God.”[20] Any attempt to object to the way things are infers that there is a way, which things should be. Overall, although their arguments are sincere, this paper has shown that they are sincerely wrong.

Biblical Considerations

From a Biblical standpoint, the believer should keep several things in mind when formulating a theodicy. To begin with, the believer could concentrate on the fact that God created the fact of freedom while man performs the act of freedom. There is no evidence in the Bible that says God forces or coerces individuals to disobey what he has commanded. Along the same lines, it is safe to say that God made evil possible, but man makes evil actual. What the problem of evil proponent must come to grips with is that the ability to do something does not necessitate the actual doing it. God is able to control everything, yet he allows man to exercise volition even if it is negative. In his omnipotence, God allows individuals the freedom to choose. Secondly, the proponent of the problem of evil must avoid an equivocation of why God allows the persistence of evil from why he permitted it in the first place. One must take into account God’s sovereign overall purpose -- His divine plan for mankind. Lastly, the Bible speaks of a time where evil will be eradicated. In the final stage of salvation, commonly referred to as Glorification salvation, the believer will be saved from the presence of sin, which includes any pain or suffering. Just because God is allowing some pain and suffering in this life does not mean His divine plans are not working out for the best.


Ironically, in an argument called “The Problem of Evil,” the only problem is for the one who presents the argument in an attempt to disprove the existence of God. Without God there is no concept of evil. Without the existence of objective moral values, there can be no deviation from that which is right; there is no evil. There are no “crooked” lines without a straight line with which to compare it. Any person objecting to the existence of God in light of evil in the world only create more reasons to believe in God.

In the midst of a focus on evil and the characteristics of this fallen world, individuals have missed the big picture; namely, that not only will evil be dealt with, but the God who will deal with it also provides the solution to the penalty and the power of sin in the life of the believer. It is true, evil exists, and has dreadfully affected the human race, but God has provided the solution to the problem, which is by grace through faith in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16; 20:31; Acts 16:31). So it seems ludicrous to disregard what God has provided for all eternity in exchange for what we experience in this short life.


Adams, Marylin McCord. Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God. Ithaca, NY: Corness

University Press, 1999.

Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, trans. Anna Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff. New York:

The bobs-Merrill company, Inc., 1964.

Copjec, Joan. ed. Radical Evil. New York, NY: Verso, 1996.

Craig, William Lane, The Problem of Evil. Audiocassette (1-2). In 1997 Masters Series in

Christian Thought. Signal Hill, Ca: Stand To Reason, 1997.

Feinberg, John S. The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problem of Evil. Grand

Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979, 1994.

__________."And the Atheist Shall Lie Down with the Calvinist: Atheism, Calvinism, and the

Free Will Defense." Trinity Journal . 1 NS (Fall 1980).

Geisler, Norman L. The Roots of Evil. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1978, 2002.

Kwak, John. Apologetics Syllabus, Talbot School of Theology, Spring 2004.

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Problem of Pain. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1944.

Mackie, J.L., “Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64, 1955.

McCallum, Dennis. The Problem of Evil. Internet.

Pojman, Louis P. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth Publishing

Company, 1998, p. 186.

Plantinga, Alvin C. God, Freedom, and Evil. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974, 1977, 1980.

Rowe, William L. ed. God and the Problem of Evil. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc,


Simon, Ulrich. A Theology of Auschwitz. Altanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1967, 1978.

Tooley, Michael. “The Problem of Evil.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet.

[1] Perhaps some of the worst cases of moral evil were the anti-Semitic acts of the Germans during World War II. See Ulrich Simon’s, A Theology of Auschwitz: The Christian Faith and the Problem of Evil (Atlanta, GA: John Knox press, 1967, 1978).

[2] Quoted in John Feinberg’s book Theologies and Evil (Portland: OR: University Press of America, Inc., 1979), p. 1.

[3] John Kwak, Apologetics Syllabus. Talbot School of Theology, Spring 2004.

[4] Michael Tooley, “The Problem of Evil.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Internet.

[5] Dennis McCallum, The Problem of Evil. Internet.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Louis P. Pojman ed. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998), p. 186.

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

[11] William Lane Craig, The Problem of Evil. Audiocassette (1-2). In 1997 Masters Series in Christian Thought (Signal Hill, CA: STR, 1997).

[12] William L. Rowe, ed. God and the Problem of Evil (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001), p. 75-76.

[13] Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, trans. Anna Benjamin and L.H. Hackstaff (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1964), Bk. I, Chap 1, p.3.

[14] Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, 1977, 1980), p. 29.

[15] Ibid., p. 30.

[16] Ibid., p. 31.

[17] Three methodologies adapted in John Kwaks Apologetics syllabus, Talbot School of Theology, Spring 2004.

[18] Clive Staples Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: NY: Macmillan, 1946), p. 25.

[19] Norman L. Geisler, The Roots of Evil (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1978, 2002), p. 59.

[20] Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation (New York: Pantheon Books, 1958), p. 57.


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