The Problem of Evil
“A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can
a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”
Table of Contents
“All is Good” Response
“Absence of Good” Response
Free Will Theodicy
“It Builds Character” Response
In traditional Christian theology, we are presented with a God who has certain defining qualities. Specifically, this deity is supposed to be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnibenevolent (all-good), and the uncreated Creator of everything. It goes without saying that such a being, if it existed, would be truly amazing — so much so, that no human could ever quite comprehend its greatness.
However, there is in that definition alone the basis for a serious logical problem. Such an amazingly perfect being as this God would, it seems, be so perfect that it could never, ever make a mistake. Yet the Bible — the source of the distinctive qualities listed above — appears to tell us that this same God did make a mistake.
The mistake is in the nature of what is supposed to be God’s greatest creation: the universe itself. It seems we could infer that this universe, if created by a perfectly good and all-powerful being, ought to be perfectly good itself — yet, as even the Bible frequently admits, it is not perfectly good by any means. We are presented with a scenario where an all-good deity created everything; yet not everything is good.
This is a problem which requires an explanation, and — unfortunately, for the Christian theist — it seems that only two are possible: that God wasn’t able to create a perfectly good universe, or that He wasn’t willing to do so. And, still more unfortunately, the first explanation requires that God not be all-powerful, and the second that God not be all-good.
Naturally, since both omnipotence and omnibenevolence are supposed to be essential qualities of the Christian God, this constitutes a very major problem. How can these two claims — that God is all-good and all-powerful, and that the universe contains evil — be reconciled?
My position is that they cannot. The Problem of Evil is not just an upsetting theological conundrum, although it has been often regarded as such. It is a logical inconsistency within the claims of traditional Christianity.
Now, of course, the Problem of Evil is not something which has gone unnoticed by theologians, and there have been many attempts to solve it. It is clearly necessary to examine some of these proposed solutions, to see whether any of them might serve to negate the inconsistency. In each case, we must demand two things: that the response solve the logical Problem of Evil, and that it remain consistent with the theology it purports to defend.
Also, for the sake of clarity, it is necessary to define exactly what position I am referring to with the phrase “traditional Christian theology.” By this I mean the doctrine that God has the three traits listed above, and where God is also a “just” being who will reward the good with eternal life, and punish the evil with eternal damnation. You may well ask why I limit the discussion to this position only, which is a fair question — my answer is that it would be practically impossible to address even a small number of additional theological positions and still keep this essay of manageable size. Examinations of the logical Problem of Evil as it relates to these other positions, then, will have to be set aside for the moment.
The “All is Good” Response
This is an attempt to negate the Problem of Evil by simply suggesting that there is no evil. This is otherwise known as the “best of all possible worlds” theory, as proposed by Leibniz (and famously satirized in Voltaire’s Candide). This response is, I think, best summarized by a quote:
“All nature is but art, unknown to thee,
All chance, discretion thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good;
And spite of pride, in erring reason’s spite,
One truth is clear: whatever is, is right.”
So, in other words, this defense suggests that “evil” is nothing more than man’s erroneous interpretations of what is, in fact, good in God’s great plan. Now, this may be a response which manages to solve the Problem of Evil as it relates to certain kinds of theism; however, it is not one which is compatible with traditional Christian theism specifically.
The reason for this is that the essential basis of Christianity is the idea of salvation… but if there is only good, and no evil, then there is nothing to be saved from! Similarly, if there is no evil, then there is no reason for hell, no reason for punishment, and no possible Devil. Given that all of these are necessary for the sort of theology in question, the “All is Good” response will not suffice.
The “Absence of Good” Response
This is a classical response to the Problem of Evil, most famously espoused by St. Thomas Aquinas. Essentially, this response is an attempt to follow the route of the “All is Good” response, while still remaining consistent with Christian theology.
“Absence of Good” tries to do this by saying that evil is not “something”, it is a lack of something — in other words, it is simply the lack of good, in the same sense that darkness is merely the lack of light. The point is to make evil something that can be referred to, without being something whose existence must be accounted for causally.
This response may seem like a rather pointless bit of semantics, and really it is. After all, even if we were to grant that evil is not “something”, but only a lack of good, it still must be accounted for! We must, at most, simply restate “the Problem of Evil” as “the problem of lack of good”.
The analogy of good/evil to light/dark is useful in explaining this. Imagine an architect who designs an office building for a company. The company, while looking over the plans he has drawn, notes a rather startling discrepancy: the proposed building has no windows, and no lighting! Obviously, if this building is actually built, the workers in it will have a rather difficult time doing their jobs.
But now imagine that they confront the architect with this flaw, and he responds by saying that darkness is not “something”, and hence, can’t constitute a flaw. He’s partly right, of course; darkness is just the absence of light. Does that mean that the absence of light is not a flaw? No. Providing light is something that a good architect should have done, so not providing light belies seriously substandard architecture.
Similarly, even if evil really is just the absence of good, this does not mean it is not a problem. The “absence of good” is just as notable a flaw as the existence of evil — and all the more so because the “architect”, in this case, is supposed to be a perfect being.
And the problems with this response do not end here. There are two more objections which could be made, both of which serve to make the same point: evil really cannot be defined as just “lack of good”. Making this point will require a brief foray into the realm of moral philosophy, but one which will, I hope, prove to be worthwhile.
First, take the idea that a given action is “evil”. Is this the same as only saying “the action is not good”? Not really. We typically discern between actions which are good, those which are evil, and those which are neither (i.e., have no moral implications). But if evil is just “absence of good”, then the last category is excluded, because everything which wasn’t good would be evil by definition.
This would mean that any action which didn’t have morally “good” connotations — such as, say, mundane actions like using a handkerchief, or eating chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream — would technically be evil! This seems to reduce the idea of “evil” to the level of absurdity, and certainly reduces it to a more ridiculous concept than most theists would be prepared to accept.
Second, consider the idea that there are differing degrees of evil. For instance, take the difference between a murder, and a mass-murder. We would generally have no hesitation in saying that the latter is far more evil than the former. But can calling evil “lack of good” account for this notion of degrees? No, simply because neither murder nor mass-murder are good at all — how could one then be “less good” than the other?
So, if we really were to consistently accept the view that evil is only lack of good, we would be committing ourselves to the view that no “non-good” action is any worse than any other. Is anyone really prepared to admit that there is no moral difference between murder and mass-murder? Or, for that matter, between murder and choosing chocolate ice cream? For anyone who isn’t, the “Absence of Good” response is simply not an option.
Free Will Theodicy
This is probably the most common response made by modern Christians to the Problem of Evil. The argument runs like this: God granted human beings free will, making them free moral agents, and they happened to freely choose evil. So, evil was something freely created by humans, and consequently not attributable to God.
Naturally, if the free will theodicy succeeded in establishing that humans were the ultimate source of evil, it would indeed negate the logical inconsistency the Problem of Evil suggests. The problem here is that, in order to do this, the theodicy must somehow succeed in breaking the causal chain — or string of cause-and-effect relationships — between human actions and God.
Unfortunately, proposing free will does not actually break this causal chain, simply because this response itself admits that free will itself is something God created.
In order to illustrate this, let’s suppose for the moment that evil was indeed introduced to the universe by humans. So, why did humans create evil? Because they had the free will to do so, according to the free will theodicy. And why, then, did they have this capacity for free will? Because God caused them to have it.
This is the point where the problem with this theodicy becomes apparent. If God created free will, and then free will caused evil, then God must still have created evil – He just would have done so via intermediate causes. The only difference between this free will scenario and a scenario of Calvinist predestination would be that, instead of creating evil directly, here God creates free will — which in turn creates evil for Him.
But, some might object, this is exactly the point: God isn’t the direct cause of evil, and therefore evil cannot be something for which He is responsible. For this objection to be sound, however, it must be the case that responsibility does not apply to actions one does not directly cause. This, in turn, is simply not the case.
Take a case where someone purposefully shoots another person to death. Naturally, the gunman doesn’t directly kill the victim – the bullet does. So, is the gunman not to blame for the victim’s death? Is the bullet the ultimate cause of the death, simply because it was the proximate cause? Of course not, because the bullet was set in motion by the gunman. The gunman made the bullet fire, and he did it with the preconceived purpose of killing someone. He is therefore responsible for that death. He caused the death, he knew he was causing it, and he did it intentionally.
We can apply these same criteria for determining whether God must be responsible for evil. Here, we know God must have set every evil action in motion, simply because, as a First Cause, God sets everything in motion. We also know that God’s omniscience ensures His knowledge of the outcome of any course of action, so the creation of free will can only have been done with the eventual creation of evil in mind. Hence, the criteria of causation, foreknowledge, and intent are met – and hence, the God of traditional Christianity would be demonstrably responsible for the existence of evil, quite regardless of whether one adds “free will” to the causal chain.
Some variations of the free will theodicy attempt to solve this problem by saying that, although God knew the creation of free will would in turn create evil, He had to create it anyway, because free will is in some sense necessary. Generally, this is thought to be the case because free will is required for God’s creations to love Him freely… and making this sort of love possible is, according to the theodicy, so inherently good that the creation of evil is an unfortunate but acceptable side-effect.
The problem with this attempted solution is twofold. First, there is some question as to whether, even with free will, humans can ultimately love God (or do anything else!) freely. We can deal with this just as we did with the fact that humans do evil: humans love God because they have the free will to do so, and they have the free will do so because God gave them that capacity. So, the fact that people love God is not ultimately attributable to those people, but to God Himself — which is precisely the problem which free will is supposed to necessarily solve.
Second, the entire question of individual human responsibility for actions — an important idea in traditional theology — is called into question here. Even if we grant that free will had to be created in order to bring about the best possible situation, this still makes the existence of evil a consequence of something God did. Why God did it is irrelevant; but what is relevant is that human beings are not responsible for this evil. The only thing which a just and fair God could hold responsible for the existence of evil is reality itself — specifically, the fact of reality which made evil the necessary consequence of free will.
So, given this, holding people responsible for evil — and, indeed, damning them eternally for it! — is hardly something we could expect from an omnibenevolent God. If the free will theodicy described above is true, evil is something that afflicts people, not something which they ultimately created… and can the sort of God Christianity proposes punish people for something beyond their control?
There are, in summary, very important objections to the free will theodicy as a solution to the Problem of Evil for traditional theology. The free will apologist seems to propose a situation where nobody would be morally responsible for evil’s existence, and yet where a fair, just, and omnibenevolent God still punishes people for it. So, for this theodicy to become relevant, it must be admitted that God doesn’t really intend to hold people responsible for evil… an admission which the traditional idea of an eternal hell will not allow.
The “It Builds Character” Response
This is another fairly popular response. It asserts that God did indeed create evil willingly, but did so in order that humankind might learn from the experience. The argument goes that, without experiencing evil, people can never be fully appreciative of God’s goodness. Hence, God makes people evil, because it will “build character”, as it were.
This fails firstly in that it suggests God is not omnipotent. There is no logical reason why God, if He wanted to do so, couldn’t simply create people with “character” of the sort He wants. Consequently, there is no logical necessity for the creation of evil — meaning, if God created evil anyways, it wasn’t because He had to.
It fails further in that it is inconsistent with traditional theology. The inconsistency, in this case, comes in the fact that the God of the Bible so consistently punishes people for evil – to the degree of killing them, and even condemning them for eternity. This is not compatible with the idea that God approves of evil as some kind of “learning experience”. After all, dead people aren’t terribly likely to collect up their scattered limbs and declare “well, looks like I learned my lesson”…!
The Sovereignty Response
This is a rather blunt attempt to deal with the Problem of Evil, and one which appears to be used almost entirely by those subscribing to some form of Calvinism. It states that God creating evil is not a problem, because God is a sovereign being, and can do whatever He wants. It comes down, essentially, to “yes, God created evil. So what? He’s God!” There is some Biblical precedent for this view:
“But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to Him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Does the potter not have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honour, and another for dishonour? What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?”
This is certainly a novel alternative to theodicy, but unfortunately not a solution to the logical Problem of Evil. After all, the key question here is not whether God has the right to create evil, but whether the supposed nature of God is logically consistent with Him doing so.
The preceding sections can hardly hope to have covered every possible response to the Problem of Evil, but they hopefully have managed to show why many of the most common responses fail.
Of course, simply dealing with some responses fails to address the question: is a solution to the Problem of Evil possible? Perhaps it is, and certainly it should be ardently sought, not only by Christians, but by anyone concerned with the issue. For the moment, however, the Problem of Evil seems to stand as a true logical inconsistency, and the consequences of this must be realized: if traditional Christian theism’s claims are inconsistent, these claims logically must be at least partially in error.