The Problem of Evil, Part I

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File:David Hume.jpgHistorically, the problem of evil is without a doubt the most famous and most compelling argument against the existence of God.  More broadly, the existence of evil is something with which every person must grapple, regardless of religious views.  The staggering amount of evil in the world, on display in the news, in our own lives, and in the books of history defies understanding.

It is unsurprising, given the prevalence of evil from day-to-day life to the world stage, that the problem of evil is often considered a powerful argument of against any sort of benevolent creator.

Before launching into a brief history of the argument, it must be stressed that this blog post and those that follow will only deal with the intellectual problem.  There is also a powerful emotional and spiritual problem that must be dealt with as well.  I am not fit to answer such a problem, nor should the solution to the intellectual problem be used to solve the emotional problem.  Comforting someone who has just lost a child by telling them that there is no logical incompatibility between the existence of evil and God's goodness is of no value, and is positively insensitive.  We must look to our spiritual leaders in grappling with the spiritual aspect of the problem of evil.

But if someone is struggling intellectually with the existence of God and the problem of evil is a roadblock to belief, this post may be a good place to start, and will at least point the reader to various resources.


Epicurus (341 BC - 270 BC) is often regarded as being the first to propound the problem of evil.  As with many ancient thinkers, we do not have Epicurus' own words.  Rather, our knowledge of Epicurus' argument comes from the 3rd century Christian theologian Lactantius.  According to Lactantius, Epicurus argued an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist, and that the gods are rather disinterested in the affairs of men, being neither good nor evil.

The problem of evil as it is understood today really begins with David Hume (1711-1776).  In fact, he is the one who mentioned Epicurus in his own discussion of the problem, and so it is now traditional to mention Epicurus as the originator of the problem of evil.  David Hume is one of the most colossal figures in the history of philosophy, and much of his thinking and argument holds sway even today, nearly a quarter millennium after his death.  Here is his argument from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

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?
Why is there any misery at all in the world?  Not by chance, surely.  From some cause, then.  Is it from the intention of the deity?  But he is perfectly benevolent.  Is it contrary to his intention?  But he is almighty.  Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive...1

Preliminary Remarks

There are several distinctions we must make in order to understand the problem of evil, as it isn't just one "problem," per se.  We have already distinguished between what we called the "emotional" or "spiritual" argument and the "intellectual" argument.  There are at least two others.  The first is the difference between the logical problem of evil and the "probabilistic" or "evidential" problem of evil.

The logical problem of evil is the one that is most familiar to the general populace; the idea is to show that there is some logical incompatibility between the God of traditional theism and the existence of evil.  It is often assumed that this problem is unanswerable - we shall see that this is not the case.  This has led to the popularity of the probabilistic problem of evil (at least in philosophical circles).  The probabilistic version does not attempt to show a logical incompatibility, but rather attempts to show that God's existence is improbable given the incredible amount of evil we find in the world.

The final distinction useful to us is between moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is the result of man's inhumanity to man.  Homo homini lupus est - man is a wolf to man.  For an example, look no further than the horrors of Syria.  Moral evil can also include less direct moral evil, such as a civil engineer deliberately creating a poor design for a building to make more money, only to have the building collapse, killing dozens.  There is also natural evil.  Natural evil, as the reader might expect, is the evil we find in the natural world.  Chief among recent examples are the earthquakes off the shores of Indonesia in 2005 and Japan in 2011.  Moral and natural evil can often intersect.  Take, for example, the famines of Africa.  While it is certainly a severe famine, much of the suffering is caused by an inability for developed countries to help the African countries, due to rampant corruption of the dictatorial governments.2

The Argument, Revisited

To avoid repeating myself at length, take a look at the section of an earlier post entitled "Arguments of Natural Atheology."  The important point to glean from that section is that despite the assertions of a great many, there is no explicit logical contradiction between God being, omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good and the existence of evil.  To arrive at a logical contradiction, another premise must be added.  However, no such additional premise has been found.

This is a point Alvin Plantinga made.  But Plantinga's real contribution to the discussion on the problem of evil is his Free Will Defense, which will be the subject of the next post.  It is an attempt to solve the moral problem, as opposed to the natural problem.  After that post, I hope to cover some of the basics of the natural problem, as well as the probabilistic problem.  These have come into vogue in the philosophical world, as Plantinga's arguments pretty well slammed the door on the logical problem of evil, especially as related to moral evil.

1.  Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, pp. 88 & 91, quoted from Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, p. 10.
2.  This example was taken from Craig and Moreland's Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, p. 536.
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