The salience of the problem of evil in regards to theology and religious studies is explicit, in as much as the acknowledgment of the existence of evil seems to oppose the contrasting claim of the existence of God. This problem of theodicy is a traditional concern of theology as well as philosophy: how can we reconcile the clear subsistence of evil with the idea of a benevolent Creator? In the context of the debate between theists and atheists, the problem of evil arguably has a decisive status: in so far as “the agnostic and atheist usually base their case on the absence of evidence for God’s existence” (Professor’s Last Name, slide 2), the problem of evil becomes something to the effect of a positive empirical claim in favor of atheism: the existence of unjustified suffering and evil becomes a form of proof for the impossibility of a powerful, omnipotent and good God. Or, as Mackie concisely phrases the problem: “God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists.” (185) The three premises are interrelated: it seems that any theist must accept the notion that God is both omnipotent and wholly good: without this acceptance, this appears to not be a definition of God as we traditionally understand the concept.
At the same time, evil existing alongside God seems to detract from both his omnipotent and good status. Furthermore, in addition to the attributes of omnipotence and omnibenolvence, the attribute of omniscience may also be added (Professor’s Last Name, slide 8); in other words, the theist cannot appeal to a version of God that is somehow ignorant of the suffering of the world. Accordingly, the problem of evil addresses our most intuitive understandings of what kind of being a God would be; in this is its power, and thus, the potent challenge it presents to the theist.
From this perspective, the problem of evil appears to be sound, since it addresses not merely one, but all of these apparently fundamental aspects of the concept of God: the omnipotence and goodness of God.
Nonetheless, various strategies have been pursued to attempt to resolve the problem. For example, Alexander Pope offers what can be called an argument that limits human understanding: namely, we cannot know what is God’s ultimate plan, since we are not God-like beings. What we take to be evil is merely symptoms of our own epistemological limitations. Hence, Pope writes “All nature is but art, unknown to thee; All chance, direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony, not understood; All partial evil, universal good.” (lines 289-292) At first glance, Pope’s argument is compelling: it is based on the clear limitations of human knowledge. It is not a radical argument to state that there are such limits: therefore, what we perceive to be evil, is merely something that we cannot understand.
Nevertheless, such an argument is problematic to the extent that it reduces the suffering human beings experience to an epistemological category, namely, to a question about what we know. Suffering, in contrast, affects us so greatly because it is something felt on the ontological level, that is, on the level of our ontological being. Attempting to rationalize suffering may be an after-effect of the event of suffering that appears in our lives: but the immediate suffering is the pain of loss, of, for example, simply being with another individual. Accordingly, approaching suffering from the perspective of the epistemological overlooks how we humans experience suffering and evil in the most fundamental manner: on the level of our existence. Furthermore, such an argument arguably detracts from the notion of an omnibenovelent God: to lose a loved one in a senseless act seems to be hardly comforted by the fact that it is all part of some grand plan. It does not namely address the immediate loss of a loved one.
Arguably, a much more compelling solution to the problem of evil from the perspective of the theist is the assertion that evil does in fact exist, yet it is entirely the product of the human being. This is the so-called “free will defense.” (Mackie, 190) This argument has a clear advantage over the previous argument: it does not reduce the ontological suffering to the epistemological register of somehow not understanding what God intends for us. Instead, it acknowledges the terrible reality of suffering. Yet, essentially, it places the blame for this suffering on the human being.
However, at the same time, this approach gives the highest value to human freedom: namely, if suffering is the product of the human, therefore it is the product of the human being’s choices. The ability to choose defines our existence, and therefore freedom is the highest value of our existence, or, in Mackie’s words, “it is better on the whole that men should act freely, and sometimes err, than they should be innocent automata.” (190)
This argument also possesses some clear weaknesses. Firstly, it cannot account for incidents of evil that are not the result of human beings, such as natural disasters. In this case, there can be no human actor involved in the process, unless one goes to absurd links to draw some causal chain that could show how the human being ultimately caused, for example, an earthquake: this is clearly limited by the historical occurrences of earthquakes, in which the human’s technological development was inadequate. Secondly, such an account is ultimately based on the virtue of freedom: but is this not inconsistent with religious teaching itself? For example, God is not immune from revealing himself to the world, directly intervening for example in the form of Christ or helping the Jews escape from Egypt or taking Mohammed on a visit to heavens. The freedom argument overlooks the clear instances when God, according to religious scriptures of the world’s religions, does intervene in the world.
In short, the problem of evil remains a compelling argument against the existence of God: it requires either a denial of the ontological reality of suffering or some privileging of freedom over any other value. Furthermore, and most importantly, it directly challenges the attributes of God as all-knowing and all-powerful, but perhaps most significantly, the attribute of a God who is all-good.
- Mackie, J.L. “Evil and Ominpotence.” In First Initial. Editor’s Last Name. (ed.) Book
Title. City Where Published: Publisher, Year.
- Professor’s Last Name, Professor’s First Name. “The Problem of Evil: Powerpoint
Presentation.” City of University: University, Date of Powerpoint Presentation.