The problem of evil was first constructed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, and is an argument that seeks to debunk the classical God of Theism. Because of its logical consistency and a posteriori evidence, the problem of evil has proved hard to defeat. However, it is by no means fatal to traditional theism. There are two significant weaknesses of the problem of evil – one, the assumption that evil exists; two, the assumption that evil is fundamentally bad.
The Abrahamic religions share the belief in an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent entity known as God; any belief in Cosmic Dualism is rejected. Aquinas’ Third Way, based on the principle that nothing comes ex nihilo, states that God exists as a creator. The theistic God is also considered to be an immanent entity concerned with the development of the universe and humanity. If we accept that God’s characteristics result in his willingness and ability to prevent evil, then, because we experience evil in our lives, we are confronted with an inconsistent triad. Epicurus formulated his argument thus:
‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’
The problem of evil is only a problem if we know for certain that evil exists in the world as its own entity. St Augustine of Hippo argued that the world was created good, citing Genesis 1:31: ‘God saw all that he had made, and behold it was very good.’ He therefore argued that the genesis of the world contained no evil, and that evil simply stems from a privatio boni. Augustine said that ‘evil is not a substance’, and that the lack of good in our world was caused by Adam and Eve’s ‘first disobedience’. He said that The Fall disrupted the order of the universe, and that this disharmony caused the privation of the good. By saying this, Augustine is removing all blame from God, as he has not created any evil; thus, the problem of evil is not necessarily fatal, if the existence of evil is not certain.
However, many critics of Augustine would question why God would allow a privation of the good in the universe. Surely upon creation the omniscient God knew the inevitability of The Fall and the results of disharmony (i.e. suffering). Does this not, therefore, support the problem of evil’s proposition that the theistic God is malevolent rather than benevolent? F.D.E Schleiermacher said that God was responsible for this lack of good, and for the suffering that stems from it. He also said that it was a logical absurdity to say that a perfect world is lacking in goodness. Moreover, Calvin said that if humans are predetermined by God (because he is omniscient) they cannot be held accountable for The Fall, and so God is still to blame for evil.
Nonetheless, the existence of evil is still questionable. The Privation of the Good links closely to Plato’s Aesthetic Defence, which greatly influenced Augustine. Plato, as a dualist, believed that we have a limited perspective, like the prisoners of his cave; Augustine draws on this idea, stating that only God, due to his omniscience, knows what is good and what is evil. He says that we see some things to be evil (e.g. a scorpion’s sting), which may actually be good (i.e. for the scorpion to survive). Augustine writes: ‘All these things… cannot be called evil: for all such things as far as they exist, must have their existence from the most high God, for as far as they exist they are good.’ Augustine would therefore argue that the suffering we experience in the universe is not real, and that we do not have a true perspective of reality. Consequently, this would justify God in the face of evil.
Alvin Platinga states that the proper theistic rebuttal to the problem is not to argue that all evil is justified, but to argue that it is logically possible that there is a reason for God’s permission of what we perceive to be evil. Platinga, Pike, Yandell, Mavrodes and others insist that these ‘greater goods’ of evil don’t need to be true, but that they need to be possible. One of the significant flaws of the problem of evil is its assumption that suffering is necessarily bad. Irenaeus says that God is responsible for evil in the world, but that it is teleologically good; this is known as the belief in ‘necessary evil’. John Hick supported this idea and referred to the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ (Keats). Hick writes: ‘For moral and spiritual growth come through response to challenges.’ He says that evil is necessary to allow humans to develop, and that we were ‘made in God’s image in order to become his likeness’. A more modern response to the problem is that of Barry L. Whitney, outlined in his essay An Aesthetic Solution to the Problem of Evil: ‘Evil, given by God to secure good ends, by whatever means (punishments, tests of faith, discipline, etc.), would no longer be genuinely evil.’ This justifies the existence of evil in our world, and so the problem is not fatal to traditional theism.
In response, many people have adopted Mackie’s line of argument and questioned why God couldn’t create a ‘vale of soul-making’ without evil. Surely as an omnipotent being he could do this? Moreover, scholars have claimed that the belief in necessary evil gives no comfort to those experiencing extreme suffering. Richard Swinburne notes that ‘the crux of the problem of evil… is not the fact of evil or the kinds of evil… it is the quantity of evil.’ Similarly, Dostoevsky questions whether God can justify the extreme evil in the world. Even if our eschatological fulfilment is eternal and glorious, does this justify the suffering of innocent children?
Many Christians, however, would argue against this response. They would claim that the suffering experienced in the world is insignificant compared to the fulfilment we will experience in Heaven. Religious scripture supports this belief; in Matthew 5, the eight Beatitudes explain that those who experience pain on earth will receive salvation in heaven. This belief in a greater good in heaven is supported by Roderick Chisholm:
‘If the evil in the world is defeated and contained in a larger whole that is absolutely good, one should rather say that, if God had been able and unwilling to create such evil then he would be malevolent.’
This approach can also be used for the argument of soul-making. Others might argue that evil is justified by the gift of free will. Augustine and Irenaeus both argue that free will is good, and that evil and our concupiscence are by-products of our autonomy. Evil is, therefore, not necessarily bad. Consequently, the suffering of the world is not considered a valid argument, and the problem of evil does not defeat belief in God.
Overall, the problem of evil is significantly flawed. Its main fault is that it relies on the premise that evil exists in the world, and that it is necessarily a bad thing. The problem also relies on our human senses, which cannot be trusted because of the subjective nature of human experience. Moreover, it doesn’t take into account the benefits of suffering, like a father’s punishing his child. Its flaws, therefore, render it a weak argument, and one can conclude that it is not fatal to traditional theism.