IV. The Problem of Evil

So far, we have examined only arguments for the existence of God. But for each argument, we have also discussed some objections. Some theists may accept all these objections and yet maintain a belief in the existence of God.

Ernest Nagel, however, maintains that not only are there no good reasons to believe that God exists (he criticizes all of the arguments), there is a good reason to believe that God does not exist. On p. 145, he says raises the difficulty ...

" ... which arises from the simultaneous attribution of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence to the Deity. The difficulty is that of reconciling these attributes with the occurrence of evil on the world."

We're going to expand on this idea. We'll present a line-by-line version of an argument based on this consideration of the existence of evil.

      A. First Argument from Evil


First Argument from Evil
1. If God exists, then this world was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being.
2. If this world was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good being, then this is the best of all possible worlds.
3. If this is the best of all possible worlds, then this world contains no evil.
4. This world contains some evil.
5. Therefore, God does not exist.


P1: This follows from our definition of God, which say this:

God =df. the necessarily existing, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good creator of the universe.

Given this definition, premise 1 is analytic.

P2: Recall how Leibniz pictured it. God has a "God's eye" view of all the possible worlds -- all the ways the universe could be. There are infinitely many of these possible worlds, many differing only very slightly from the actual world, some differing a great deal from the actual world. An all-knowing being would know every detail about every possible world, and would know which possible world is the best one. An all-powerful being would have the power to create any possible world he wants. An all-good being would prefer the best possible world, and would thus create the best possible world. Since this world is the one that was created, this world has got to be the best.

P3: If the world contained even the slightest about of evil, it would not be the best of all possible worlds. There would be a better possible world -- a world just like this one, but without the evil. The best possible world therefore cannot contain any evil at all.

P4: Just last September, many innocent people were unjustly killed in a horrific disaster. Many innocent children in Iraq die each month of sickness and starvation. Each day, women are raped in this country. Every year, fires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes injure and kill innocent men, women, and children. These things are bad. The world would be better if they didn't happen. They are evil. So, clearly, the world contains evil.

            1. Attempted Solutions

Many atheists think this argument is sound. Theists have offered many replies (i.e., attempts to show how to plausibly deny some premise or other). Each reply is an attempt to solve the "problem of evil."

                  a. give up omnipotence

One move is to deny P1 and say that God is not all-powerful.  This objection restricts God's power in some important way by claiming that God lacks the power to bring about certain states of affairs that are possible. It is God's lack of omnipotence that explains the existence of evil in the world.

Rejoinder: This is certainly one way out. But it is a reply most theists are unable to accept. God is supposed to be the supreme, a being that is perfect in every way. This ensures that God is worthy of our worship. To give up omnipotence is to give up this picture of God.

                  b. good and evil are illusions

Another move is to deny P4 and say that there is no evil in the world.  One can do this by saying that morality is an illusion -- by being a sort of nihilist.

Rejoinder: This, too, is a solution most theists are unwilling to make. It is part of many religious traditions that bad things do happen in the world. And independently of that, denying this premise seems very implausible. It is very implausible to say that rape, murder, torture of innocent people is not a bad thing.

                  c. mystery reply

People who hold this "solution" say things like, "God works in mysterious ways; who are we to judge God?"

Rejoinder: The person who gives this "solution" simply refuses to take part in a philosophical discussion about the existence of God. This "solution" should be unacceptable to anyone who is seriously engaged in philosophical theology because it does not object to any premise of the argument. This "solution" offers no reason for anyone to believe that the Argument from Evil is unsound.

                  d. theodicy

A "theodicy" is an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of a perfect deity -- in other words, an attempt to show why P3 is false.  We will talk about two types of theodicies:

                        (i) soul-building evils

This reply says that P3 is false. The best world actually contains some evil, namely, "soul-building evil"-evil that is necessary for us to be better people. The idea is that if we were to remove that evil, then the people in the world would have weaker characters. But the world is made better by having people with good characters. And the amount of good that's added by having these weaker characters exceeds the amount of bad that is necessary to bring them about.

This objection seems stronger than the others. It shows that God's perfection is consistent with the existence of evil in the world by showing that the best world might contain some evil.

Consider the following traits of character: charity, compassion, bravery. These traits of character are good. But maybe it is logically impossible for these traits to exist with out evil. Exercising charity means helping someone who is not well-off who deserves to be better off (and this, the state of affairs of someone not being well-off who deserves to be well-off, is evil). Being compassionate means appreciating and having sympathy for someone's suffering (an evil). Being brave requires hanging in there in the face of hardship (an evil).

                        (ii) free will

It is argued by theists that there is another reason why evil might exist in the best world: the existence of free creatures like ourselves. It is claimed that freedom is good -- a world with free creatures is, all else being equal, better than a world without free creatures. But when there's free creatures, we run the risk of those creatures freely causing some evil. God is not responsible for this evil. And, though he could certainly prevent the evil we bring about, he could not prevent it without destroying our freedom (for to allow someone to make choices only if they are the ones you like is not to give him choices at all).

It's not obvious that this line of argument works. For, why couldn't God create people who are genuinely free, but, as a matter of fact, never choose evil? God knows how we will freely behave even before he creates us -- why can't he just restrict himself to creating people he knows will freely choose to be good?

One rejoinder to these two solutions is to modify the argument, by changing premises 3 and 4.  See the next section.

      B. Second Argument from Evil

1. ...
2. ...
3´. If this is the best of all possible worlds, then the only evil this world contains is soul-building evil and evil caused by free agents.
4´. This world contains more than just soul-building evil and evil caused by free agents.
5. ...


P3´: The best possible world may contain some soul-building evil-that is, evil that is necessary for the existence of good traits of character, such as charity, compassion, and bravery. And it may contain some evil that was required for there to be free agents in the world. (And the amount of good added by these traits of character and by there being free agents must outweigh the amount of evil required to get these goods). But the best world cannot any evil that does not serve either of these purposes.

P4´: Sober asks us to consider the case of Hitler to support premise 4'. Consider the actual world -- the actual way things went. Hitler was born, and was responsible for the deaths and torture and forced labor of millions and millions of innocent men, women, and children -- people who didn't deserve this treatment.

Now imagine another world that God might have created. A world just like the actual world save one thing -- Hitler was never born. Call this world 'w1'. Surely, w1 contains plenty of evil to build souls and still contains plenty of free agents. It is incredible to suppose that w1, the world in which Hitler is never born, and all the innocent people get to live and be happy (and everything else stays the same), is worse than the actual way things went.

We can imagine the same sort of thing with respect to so-called "natural evils" as well, such the bubonic plague. There is another possible world -- call it 'w2' -- in which the plague doesn't occur, but everything else remains as it is. Removing the plague violates no one's free will (in fact, it adds to freedom, since sickness takes away people's freedom), and certainly the amount of soul-building that occurred as a result of the plague was not worth the cost. About one-third of the European population died agonizing deaths from the bubonic plague.

1. Attempted Solution

a. defense

One reply to this new argument is called a 'defense'.  It does not try to show 4´ is false. Rather, it just tries to show that we can't be sure it's true. The defense is this: we're pretty ignorant; the world is complicated; perhaps God allowed these things to occur for greater good we cannot understand.

This defense is a bit unsatisfying since it's similar to the "mystery reply." But it is a little better than that reply, because it specifies a premise to attack, and does it by trying to cast doubt on reasons to think it is true.

So this is the problem of evil.

V. Concluding Remarks for the Philosophy of Religion

Maybe you're a bit disappointed in arguments for and against the existence of God. Maybe you were looking for a knock-down proof one way or the other. Well, welcome to philosophy. There are very few knock-down arguments in philosophy. I think what we do instead is this. We set out the strongest argument for some position. Then we try to develop the strongest objection to the argument. Then we study it, weigh both sides, and decide which way we think the balance tilts.

Yeah, the problem of evil is pretty disturbing for someone who believes is God. But then the Fine-Tuning argument as well as Leibniz's Argument from Sufficient Reason provide reasonable cases for the existence of some sort of deity.

Which way does the balance tilt? For God? Against God? I leave it to you to decide.