The Problem of Evil

2. Nature of the Argument

What I am examining here is the idea of the existence of what is called the 'God of the philosophers'. This God is defined as perfect in all respects. His necessary attributes include omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. I understand that this concept does not apply to polytheistic religions, such as ancient Greek mythology, Hinduism and some strands of Buddhism, and to ditheistic religions such as Zoroastrianism and Catharism. It also does not apply to some elements of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, based as they are on Biblical traditions. Some Pentateuch authors, in particular, did not see God as omnipotent (Ex. 31:17; Judg. 1:19), omniscient (Gen. 11.5; Deut. 32:20) or omnibenevolent (Ex. 32:14; Deut. 32:23).

For the purposes of this essay, I will define each of the divine characteristics as follows. By 'omnipotence', I mean that attribute of a being that allows it to do anything that it is logically possible to do. That is, to do anything that cannot be described as self-contradictory. An omnipotent being, for example, can create a star, but he cannot create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it.

By 'omniscience', I mean that attribute of a being in virtue of which it knows the truth of every true proposition and falsity of every false proposition. The truths known include counterfactuals, such as, 'If the sun was twice as hot as it is now, human life would not survive'. It also includes propositions about the past and future, such as, 'The president of the United States will propose items of legislation in 2020.'

By 'omnibenevolence', I mean that attribute of a being by which it desires and wants to act to minimize the amount of pain and suffering in the world. Presented with options to act and all other things being equal, an omnibenevolent being will choose the option that contains the least pain and suffering. Philosophers of religion continue to debate the meanings and logical interrelationships between these concepts, but I think the brief definitions I have given above will serve the intent of this essay.

The problem of evil has been formulated in many different ways over the millennia. A version attributed to Epicurus[4] is perhaps the oldest. The argument can be formalized into a syllogism as follows:

Premise 1:    If an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent god exists, then evil does not.

Premise 2:    There is evil in the world.

Conclusion:  Therefore, an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God does not exist.

This argument proceeds by modus tollens and is logically valid. Premise 2 is generally accepted by theists and is largely non-controversial. (In §6 below, I will consider one theodicy that rejects the truth of Premise 2.) The soundness of the argument then hangs on whether Premise 1 is true and what evidence can be mustered in support of it. There have been attempts to reformulate the argument with the aim of demonstrating Premise 1 to be logically true (that is, self-contradictory to deny). I'm not convinced that any such reformulations succeed. Perhaps, at best, the problem of evil demonstrates God's existence to be improbable. Assuming the definitions of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence given above, a concise argument in support of Premise 1 can, I think, be stated as follows:

If it were possible for a particular instance of pain or suffering to exist, God would be wise enough to know of this possibility, powerful enough to prevent its instantiation and benevolent enough to desire and want to act towards its prevention. Therefore, if God exists, it is not possible for pain and suffering to exist.

Theistic philosophers have responded with a number of counterarguments to the problem of evil, so stated. Each of these counterarguments, termed a 'theodicy',[5] is designed to demonstrate how the existence of evil, pain and suffering is compatible with the existence of God. I want now to examine the most common and persuasive of these theodicies to see if one or more stand up to critical scrutiny. Three of these theodicies use the 'greater good' argument; that God allows evil, pain and suffering in order to either bring about a greater good or to prevent a greater evil. The final theodicy considered here proposes that the problem of evil is a chimera because pain and suffering itself is an illusion.

In examining each of these theodicies, keep in mind that for a theodicy to be convincing, it must do more than demonstrate that the existence of God is compatible with evil per se. It needs to account for the evil we experience in our world. In particular, we need to evaluate whether the argument it presents provides an adequate account of the types, amount and distribution of evil, pain and suffering in the world. Each criterion prompts us to ask specific questions.

Does the theodicy account for 'moral evils'; the evils perpetrated by human agents, such as torture and theft? Does it account for 'natural evils', the pain and suffering humans and other creatures endure from natural events, such as epidemics, floods, fires and earthquakes?
Does the theodicy demonstrate why the world contains the amount of pain and suffering that it does? Could God's purpose or reason for allowing pain and suffering be achieved with a lesser amount?
Does the theodicy explain the distribution of pain and suffering throughout the world; why some people experience more pain and suffering than others in virtue of their economic or social position, geographical location or time in history?

It pays to keep in mind these questions as I critically examine each theodicy in turn. In the next section, I will briefly present each theodicy and my responses will follow.


  1. [4] The 'Epicurean paradox' or 'riddle of Epicurus' reads: 'Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?' Reprinted in Hospers [1990: 310].
  2. [5] The term 'theodicy' was first coined by Gottfried Leibniz in 1710.

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