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PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

 

A. Classical Statement of the Problem

Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?                                                                                  
                                                                                         —
Epicurus (341-270 BC)

Epicurus’ old questions are yet unanswered....but allowing you what never will be believed, at least, what you never possibly can prove, that animal or, at least, human happiness in this life exceeds its misery, you have yet done nothing; for this in not, by any means, what we expect from infinite power, infinite wisdom, and infinite goodness. Why is there any misery at all in the world?                            

                                                                                         David Hume (1711-1776) Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779)

B. Versions

1. Logical problem (also called the deductive, a priori problem).
The logical form of the problem of evil is the argument that the existence of any evil at all is logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God (an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent being). Hence, the internal consistency of theism is at issue.

2. Probabilistic problem (also called the inductive, evidential, or a posteriori problem).
The probabilistic form of the problem of evil articulates inductive grounds for rejecting theistic belief. It argues that, given the quantity, severity, and variety of evil which actually exists in the world, it is improbable that the theistic God exists. The claim is that, although not logically inconsistent with the existence of the theistic God, nevertheless the inductive evidence provides rational support for the probability that the theistic God does not exist.

C. Defining evil: Traditionally, the concept of evil has been divided into two distinct types:

1. Moral evil: The evil committed by human beings. For example: war, torture, cruelty, violence, injustice, hate, political oppression, genocide, slavery, etc.

2.
Natural evil: Everything which causes human suffering, misery, and pain but is not produced by human agency. Famine, disease, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcano eruptions, death, etc.

Note well: It is important to note that the way in which the problem of evil has been approached by philosophers of religion tends to focus on the problem that the existence of evil poses for belief in the theistic God. Technically, although the vast majority of philosophers recognize some form of evil, it is not logically relevant whether the philosophical critic asserts or denies the existence of evil. What is relevant, however, is that the theist asserts the existence of evil. This point directly relates to the logical form of the problem since this version contests the internal consistency of theism.

D. The Logical Problem of Evil in Argument Form
1. An omnipotent being would be able to prevent evil.
2. An omniscient being would know how to prevent evil.
3. A perfectly good being would always choose to prevent evil.
4. There is evil in the world.
5. Therefore, God does not exist.

Suppositions (Hypothetical Implications) Illustrating the Dilemma
a) If premises 1, 2, and 3 are true, then evil should not exist in the world.
b) If premises 1, 2, and 4 are true, then God is not perfectly good.
c) If premises 1, 3, and 4 are true, then God is not omniscient.
d) If premises 2, 3, and 4 are true, then God is not omnipotent.

Conclusion: Theism is internally inconsistent since it asserts the four premises above, but the truth of any three of those statements logically implies the falsity of the fourth. In order to avoid this dilemma, theism must either 1) change its conception of God, or 2) deny the existence of evil.

E. Theistic Responses to the Logical Problem of Evil
Theists typically distinguish between two kinds of response to the problem of evil. 1) A defense seeks to establish that rational belief in the existence of God is still possible (when the defense is employed against the logical version of the problem). Or it claims that the existence of evil does not make it improbable that God exists (when utilized against the probabilistic version of the problem). In contrast, 2) theodicy (literally, a "justification of God") is part of a comprehensive project to show how God is justified in light of both good and evil. Its goal is to provide an overarching rational framework within which we can understand how evil is an unavoidable part of God’s overall plan for the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz, for example).

General Response
The fundamental response to the argument from evil is that God’s perfect goodness does not logically imply that He always choose to prevent evil. Consequently, the argument has not established its conclusion. There is no necessary incompatibility between the existence of God and evil. The specific defenses and theodicies listed below are designed to support this general theistic response.

1. Free Will Defense
Traditionally regarded as the most prominent and persuasive theistic defense against the argument from evil. God, although omnipotent, may not have been able to create a world in which human beings exercise genuine freedom without, thereby, permitting the occurrence of considerable evil. The basic assumption is that it is logically impossible for a person both freely to perform some act and to have been caused to perform that act. It is argued that the genuine capacity to choose between good and evil is a greater good or overriding value which can only be achieved by allowing some evil. Evil is a necessary consequence of creating human beings with free will. If God allows evil to occur, then it must not be logically possible for Him to achieve the greater good by any better route.

Argument Form
1. God exists and is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
2. God, although omnipotent, cannot create a world in which there are free human beings and no evil.
3. A world with free human beings and some evil is a better world than one without free human beings.
4. God created the best world possible.
5. Therefore, there is no logical inconsistency between the existence of evil and the existence of God.

Proponents of the Free Will Defense
Augustine (354-430 AD)
Irenaeus (c.130-c.202 AD)

2. Greater Good Defense
The theist still needs one or more further arguments in order to explain why God allows so-called natural evil. (Note: Augustine considers natural evil the product of human freedom, since "the Fall" negatively affected all of the creation).

Natural evilpain, suffering, miseryprovides the background context of risk and resistance without which human beings would not have the opportunity to realize great values. Natural evils provide opportunities to perform, in response to them, heroic (spiritual, moral) acts of courage, sacrifice, patience, love, and compassion. Such opportunities for spiritual and moral development would not exist without natural evil as a background context.


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