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The Problem of Evil

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. The Problem of Evil, URL = <http://www.rationalrealm.com/philosophy/metaphysics/problem-of-evil.html>.

Barbered wire nearby the entrance of Auschwitz

The problem of evil, pain and suffering is considered by some philosophers to be the most telling philosophical objection to theistic belief. At its heart is the notion that if God existed, he would be powerful enough to be able to prevent evil, wise enough to know how to prevent it and benevolent enough to want to prevent it. Given that evil, pain and suffering do occur, it seems reasonable to conclude that God does not exist.

The amount of suffering in our world is staggering. Near on 11 million children die painfully each year.[1] The majority of these deaths are preventable. The tsunami that hit 18 Asian nations in 2004 killed more than 250,000 people in a single day and left over 1.9 million people homeless.[2] Why would a loving and merciful God allow such misery and death on this grand scale?

On 19th August 1992, in the small town of Bargo, New South Wales, Ebony Simpson was walking home from school after alighting from the school bus. She was nine years old at the time. Andrew Garforth, petty criminal and father of two, abducted Ebony, forcing her into the boot of his car. After binding her hands and feet and brutally raping her repeatedly, he threw her alive into a local dam with her schoolbag, which he weighed down with rocks. Her parents, siblings, wider family and friends continue to suffer in the terrible aftermath of Ebony's murder.[3]

There have been countless more gratuitous acts of cruelty both before and after Ebony's murder. This one remains fixed in my memory, as at the time of the murder my own daughter was of a similar age to Ebony's. To many, Ebony's murder puts a searchlight to the question of why God, if he existed, would not act to prevent such wanton crimes of violence.

In this essay, I want to articulate the nature of the problem of evil and examine four common theistic proposals for why God would allow evil to exist to the extent that it does. I will lay out three criteria that a proposal must satisfy to be accepted. Three of the proposals I review here centre on the notion that God of necessity allows evil in order to prevent an even greater evil from happening or to grant us an intrinsic good that greatly outweighs the evil endured. The greater evil prevented proposed by theists is the harms done to our body. The two greater goods put forward are our free will on the one hand and our virtuous moral characters on the other. The fourth proposal I will examine here is that pain and suffering is an illusion.

After reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of each of these proposals and finding them wanting, I will progress to considering an attempt to undercut the problem of evil. The skeptical theists' attack attempts to show how the problem of evil does not even arise as a problem once the relationship between God and humans is understood. I will show that this defence creates more problems for the theist than it solves and, at its worst, serves to exclude the theist from making moral judgements altogether.

In the final section of this essay, I make some general observations about proposals that presume specific religious doctrinal positions and about the utility for the theist of combining arguments. I conclude by finding that for each of the five arguments considered, there are major obstacles to its acceptance and that the problem of evil survives to provide a compelling reason to doubt the existence of a supremely perfect being.

Footnotes

  1. [1] Millenium Development Goals – Reduce Child Mortality, http://www.unicef.org/mdg/childmortality.html.
  2. [2] Tsunami 2004, http://www.tsunami2004.net/tsunami-2004-facts/.
  3. [3] CI, Ebony Simpson's Murder, http://citv.com.au/crime-articles/75/ebony-simpsons-murder.

Copyright © 2015

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