The Problem of Evil

“Is God 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]

The problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of the evil in the world with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God. The argument from evil is the atheistic argument that the existence of such evil cannot be reconciled with, and so disproves, the existence of such a God. Christianity claims both that God created the world and that he sustains it. Christianity claims that God knows all things and is capable of all feats. Christianity claims that God is perfectly good, and wants only the best for his Creation. If each of these claims is true, though, then it is difficult to see why God allows the evil in the world to persist. The evil in the world thus appears to be at least strong and perhaps even conclusive evidence that at least one of these central claims of Christianity is false.

This discussion will distinguish between four different forms of the argument from evil: the argument from imperfection, the argument from natural evil, the argument from moral evil, and the argument from unbelief. Though each of these arguments presents a different problem for the theist to explain, a different reason for believing that atheism is true, each shares a common form, which is described below. The four arguments are, of course, mutually consistent, and so can be and often are proposed together.

Each of the four arguments from evil begins by claiming that if God existed then the world would reach a certain standard. The standard anticipated differs between the different forms of the argument, each argument claiming that the evil named in its title - imperfection, natural evil, moral evil and unbelief, respectively - would not exist in a world created by God.

In each of the arguments this claim is supported by an appeal to God’s nature. If God exists, it is said, then he is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent. As such, it is suggested, God would know how to bring it about that the world met the anticipated standard, would be able to bring it about that that the universe met the anticipated standard, and would want to bring it about that the universe met the anticipated standard. If God knew how to, were able to, and wanted to do a thing, though, then surely he would do that thing. If God existed, then, it seems that he would bring it about that the world met the standard anticipated by the proponent of the argument from evil.

The next step in each of the arguments from evil is the claim that the world does indeed contain the evil named, that the world does not reach the standard that it would reach if God existed. The four arguments thus claim respectively that the universe is imperfect, that it contains natural evil, that it contains moral evil, and that it contains unbelief. Each argument concludes from its respective claim that God does not exist. The argument from evil can, then, be represented as having the following structure:

The Argument from Evil

(1) If God exists then he is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent.

(2) If God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent then the world would not contain evil.

(3) The world contains evil.

Therefore:

(4) It is not the case that God exists.

A discussion of each of the four forms of the argument - the argument from imperfection, the argument from natural evil, the argument from moral evil, and the argument from unbelief - can be found in the following text.

The Argument from Imperfection

The argument from imperfection is one form of argument from evil. The argument from evil is the argument that the existence of evil in the world is strong, and perhaps even conclusive, evidence that God does not exist. The argument from imperfection is the form of the argument from evil that concentrates specifically on the imperfection of the world, taking the fact that the world could have been better as proof that it was not created by God.

The first task for an advocate of the argument from imperfection is to establish that if God created the world then the world would be perfect. This at least appears to follow from God’s perfection. The goodness of a creator is proportional to the goodness of that which he creates. A carpenter who makes a fragile table with uneven legs is a bad carpenter. A carpenter who makes a strong and beautiful table is better. As God is a perfect Creator, then, so God’s creation must also be perfect. If God created this world, it seems, then this must be the best of all possible worlds. Against this line of thought, objectors argue that there is no best possible world, and so that the idea that a perfect Creator would necessarily create such a world is false.

The second task for an advocate of the argument from imperfection is to establish that the world is not perfect. This claim, of course, is highly plausible; there are many ways in which it might be thought that the world might have been better. The world might, for example, have contained less wars, or less unpleasant diseases, or less destructive volcanic eruptions. The world, the advocate of the argument from imperfection will maintain, contains multiple defects, each of which establishes the non-existence of God.

If it is accepted both that if God existed then the world would be perfect, and that the world is not perfect, then it must also be accepted that God does not exist. The argument from imperfection can therefore be summarised as follows:

(1) If God exists then he is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent.

(2) If God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent then the world would not contain imperfections.

(3) The world contains imperfections.

Therefore:

(4) It is not the case that God exists.

Is There a Best Possible World?

The argument from imperfection is the argument that if God existed then the world would be perfect, that the world isn’t perfect, and so that God doesn’t exist. The claim that if God existed then the world would be perfect rests on the fact that God is conceived of by theists as being a perfect Creator. A perfect Creator, the argument from imperfection suggests, is one that creates a perfect world. One that creates an imperfect world is therefore an imperfect Creator. This imperfect world, therefore, even if it was made by some Creator, was not made by God as he is conceived of by theists. The God of theism, therefore, does not exist.

One response to the argument from imperfection is to deny that there is such a thing as a best possible world. If there is no best possible world, then even a perfect Creator would not create the best possible world, in which case it would not follow from the fact that a given world is imperfect that that world was not created by a perfect Creator. Specifically, it would not follow from the fact that this world is imperfect that it was not created by God. The argument from imperfection would have been defeated.

The claim that there is no best possible world, that the idea of a perfect world is incoherent, is at least plausible. Although there are better and worse possible worlds, for any world that we can imagine we can imagine a way of making it better. We could for instance, increase the number of happy people contained by that world. As there is no intrinsic maximum number of happy people in the world, there is no world for which it is not possible to increase the number of happy people that it contains. Further, increasing the number of happy people in a world always makes that world better. It is therefore true of every world that it could be improved, and so true of no world that it is the best possible world. Thus far, the defence against the argument from imperfection appears to be on solid ground.

The concern with this defence against the argument from imperfection is that it proves not only that the idea of a best possible world is incoherent, but also that the idea of a perfect Creator is incoherent. If this is the case, then the fact that there is no possible world not only rebuts the argument from imperfection but also disproves the existence of God. For if God is conceived of as a perfect Creator and if the idea of a perfect Creator is incoherent, then the existence of God is impossible. If the theist is to answer the argument from imperfection by denying that the concept of a best possible world is coherent, therefore, then he must find some way of explicating the concept of a perfect Creator that is not dependent upon the concept of a best possible world.

The Argument from Natural Evil

“In sober truth, nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another are nature’s everyday performances. Killing, the most criminal act recognized by human laws, nature does once to every being that lives, and in a large proportion of cases after protracted tortures such as only the greatest monsters whom we read of ever purposely inflicted on their living fellow creatures.” [John Stuart Mill, Nature and Utility of Religion]

The problem of natural evil can be summarised as follows:

(1) If God exists then he is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent.

(2) If God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent then the world would not contain natural evil.

(3) The world contains natural evil.

Therefore:

(4) It is not the case that God exists.

The most controversial premise of this argument is the second premise: “If God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent then the world would not contain natural evil.” The existence of natural evil can be justified in a variety of ways.

Some argue that good and evil are relative terms, and so that it is impossible for one to exist without the other. The existence of evil is thus taken to be justified because it allows for the possibility of the existence of good.

Even if this suggestion is resisted, a similar argument might be proposed. A world in which there were no possibility of evil would be a world in which no act has any significance. If no act can bring evil into the world, then the choice as to which act to perform is of no importance. If our lives, and the choices that we make in them, are to have genuine significance, then it seems that there must be some possibility that bad things will happen. The existence of natural evil, then, allows us to work to overcome it. The existence of evil in the world opens up possibilities for bravery, for compassion and for mutual dependence that could not exist otherwise. Without evil, our lives would be meaningless, and this, it is argued, justifies God in allowing evil to persist.

A further defence against the argument from natural evil is that evil is inflicted upon us by God as a punishment for our sins. The difficulty with this suggestion is that natural evil is a particularly crude instrument of revenge. Often, those who have committed most sins suffer least. We might expect God’s punishment to be proportional to the crimes that we have committed, but this is not what we find with natural evil.

The Argument from Moral Evil

Moral evil is evil that is wilfully inflicted upon the world by free moral agents. The problem of moral evil is the problem of reconciling the existence such evil with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God. Surely if such a God existed, it is argued, he would prevent such evil from occurring.

This specific form of the generic argument from evil can be summarised as follows:

(1) If God exists then he is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent.

(2) If God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil.

(3) The world contains moral evil.

Therefore:

(4) It is not the case that God exists.

By far the most common response to the argument from moral evil is the free-will defence. The free-will defence is the argument that as moral evil results from the choices of free moral agents its existence is consistent with the existence of God. The argument works in two ways. First, it holds that as moral evil is caused by the choices of free moral agents, God is not responsible for moral evil. Second, it holds that as it is more important that free moral agents do exist than it is that moral evil does not exist, God did well in creating such agents even though he knew that they might choose to abuse their freedom.

The Free-Will Defence

The free-will defence is a defence of theism against the argument from moral evil. The argument from moral evil is the argument that the existence of moral evil is inconsistent with, and so disproves, the existence of God. (Moral evil is simply evil resulting from the free actions of moral agents.) The argument from moral evil has the following form:

The Argument from Moral Evil

(1) If God exists then he is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent.

(2) If God were omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil.

(3) The world contains moral evil.

Therefore:

(4) It is not the case that God exists.

Like all forms of the argument from evil, the key premise of the argument from moral evil is the second. Is it the case that if God were omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil? If so, then the argument from moral evil appears to be sound; there is little else in the argument that admits of dispute.

In order to refute the argument from moral evil, then, the theist must show that it is not necessarily the case that if God were omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent then the world would not contain moral evil. Under what circumstances, though, for what reason, might such a God allow such evil?

Theists almost invariably meet this question with the free-will defence. Moral evil is caused by the free choices of moral agents, they argue. Free agency, though, is a good thing; a world containing free agents is far better than either a world containing only automata or a world containing no conscious beings at all. An omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent God would therefore create a world containing free agents, and in doing so would run the risk of allowing moral evil to enter into the world.

The first way in which the free-will defence works, then, is by distancing God from the moral evil in the world. Moral evil is not brought about by God, the free-will defence argues, but by free agents. God is therefore not the author of moral evil, and so is not responsible for it.

This conclusion might be criticised, however, in the following way: Even if it is the free agents that perpetrate moral evils that are directly responsible for them, God does seem to bear at least some indirect responsibility for them. After all, God created the free agents, knowing full well the risk that he was running in doing so, and is therefore at least partly to blame for their abuses of their freedom. God it can be argued, is guilty of negligence in creating free agents, even if not of actually perpetrating any moral crimes himself.

The second way in which the free-will defence works is in justifying the existence of moral evil by justifying God’s creation of free agents. The existence of moral evil, the free-will defence argues, is a consequence of the existence of a greater good: free will. Without free will there could be no moral goodness; a world without free agents would be morally void. The good that is the existence of free moral agents, it is suggested, therefore outweighs the bad that is the existence of moral evil, and God therefore did well in creating free agents even though he knew that some of them would commit moral evils.

Some have criticised this line of defence by arguing that the good that is the existence of free moral agents does not outweigh the bad that is the existence of moral evil. Consider the scale on which moral evil has occurred even in recent history; this is a high price to pay for freedom; is it too high a price?

Others have thought that the free-will defence fails because God could have created free agents without risking bringing moral evil into the world. There is nothing logically inconsistent about a free agent that always chooses the good. There are, then, among all of the possible free agents that God might have created, some free agents that would always have chosen the good. Why, it is sometimes asked, did God not create those free agents, leaving the others uncreated?

A further criticism of the free-will defence imagines a human being using it to justify his failure to intervene to prevent a crime from being committed. If one of us were able to prevent a brutal murder, but instead allowed it to take place, then we could not justify our inaction using the free-will defence. If we were to say that although we could have prevented the murder, we thought it best to protect the free-will of the murderer by allowing him to carry out his plan, then we would be judged to have made a moral error. Why, if this argument would be unacceptable coming from a human being, should we think it any more acceptable coming from God?

The Argument from Unbelief

The argument from unbelief, also called the argument from non-belief, is a specific form of the argument from evil developed by Theodore Drange. The type of evil the existence of which is taken to be evidence against the existence of God by this form of the argument from evil is the evil of unbelief. If God exists and is as Christianity takes him to be, the argument suggests, then God wants all human beings everywhere and at all times to believe both in his existence and in the gospel. Further, the argument continues, if God exists and is as Christianity takes him to be, then he is capable of proving his existence to all human being everywhere. There are people, however, who believe neither of these things. God’s failure to make himself known, it is suggested, can only be explained by the hypothesis that he does not exist.

(1) If God exists then he is omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent.

(2) If God were omniscient, omnipotent and benevolent then the world would not contain unbelief.

(3) The world contains unbelief.

Therefore:

(4) It is not the case that God exists.