The Problem of Evil

Author: Thomas Metcalf
Category: Philosophy of Religion
Word Count: 1000

The world contains quite a lot of evil: intense suffering, premature death, and moral wickedness. Let’s say that the proposition E is a report of all the facts about the evil in the world.

Many people believe in something like the Anselmian God (Anselm 1965 [1077-78]: ch. 2): an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and morally perfect being. This inspires a question: Why would God permit E? The question is sometimes rhetorical: He wouldn’t, and so He does not exist.

Let’s take a look at whether E provides a reason to disbelieve in God. There are four things one might say about E, ranging from that it deductively proves that God does not exist to that it provides no evidence at all against God’s existence.

1. The Incompatibility Problem of Evil

According to ‘Incompatibility’ or ‘Logical’ versions of the Problem of Evil, E is logically incompatible with God’s existence (Mackie 1955). That means that believing in E and believing in God is like believing in a five-sided square.

Most philosophers today reject this argument (Rowe 1979: 335). They think that it is possible to tell a coherent story according to which God has some morally sufficient reason to permit E. As long as that story is, for all we know, logically possibly true, that might seem enough to refute the Incompatibility Problem of Evil; it shows that it is not contradictory to believe in God and E.

2. The Evidential Problem of Evil

Other philosophers hold that evil does not prove that God does not exist, but instead, that it provides good evidence against His existence (Rowe 1979; Draper 1989; Tooley 2014: § 3.2.1).

If evil does not decisively prove that God does not exist, then we must ask how much evidence it does provide, and weigh that against the evidence (if any) for God’s existence. This will obviously be very complicated. But most philosophers reject most arguments for God’s existence (Bourget and Chalmers 2014), and there are probably billions of instances of inscrutable evil in the world: evil such that we do not know why God would permit it. Most think that if even one of these instances is gratuitous—pointless, that is—then God would not exist (Howard-Snyder and Howard-Snyder 1999). So the theist must find an explanation or set of explanations that in principle could plausibly justify all evil.

Part of the project of downplaying the evidence from evil is trying to find a plausible theodicy or other defense: an explanation of why God would permit that evil or why that evil is not as evidentially weighty as it initially seems. Here’s a summary of the two best defenses.

2.1. Free Will

Many theists hold that humans’ having significant free will is a very great good, one that is worth the evil that sometimes arises from it (Plantinga 1977: 29-59). For this to be plausible as an explanation of E, this depends on justifying some or all of the following claims: (a) some creatures have libertarian free will (a belief that is mostly rejected by philosophers (Bourget and Chalmers 2014)); (b) (e.g.) Stalin’s free will is more valuable than the lives of the millions he killed (including, presumably, their free-will choices to remain alive); (c) God morally must let us have not only our decisions but also the effects that result from them; and (d) even apparently natural disasters and disease, including those that harm nonhuman animals (Rowe 1979: 337), are all the result (e.g.) of free-willed evil-spirits’ choices (Plantinga 1977: 58).

2.2. Soul-Making

Perhaps encountering evil and freely responding to it develops various virtues in humanity, such as compassion, generosity, and courage (Hick 2007: 253-61). For this to explain E, the theist may need to argue that: (a) God could not have developed those virtues in us any other way equally valuable but less harmful (e.g. by creating humans who are more morally sensitive in the first place and reducing evil accordingly); (b) all evil can reasonably be expected to contribute to soul-making; and (c) the compassion Smith develops when she sees Jones suffering justifies God using Jones (or allowing Jones to be used) as a means to the end of producing that compassion (cf. Kant 1987 [1785]: 4:429; Trakakis 2008).

3. Outweighing Evidence?

The theist might argue that there is so much evidence for God’s existence that we are justified in being confident that God has a purpose for all evil (cf. Rowe 1979: 338). We obviously cannot consider those arguments here, so we should at least recall how many billions of instances of severe, inscrutable evil there are in the world, and adjust one’s requirements on evidence for God’s existence accordingly. We must also recall, again, that a strong majority of philosophers rejects theism (Bourget and Chalmers 2014), and so philosophers in general seem to have a dim view of the idea that there is good evidence for God’s existence. Therefore, this strategy probably depends on marshalling a set of generally-rejected arguments in order to explain billions of inscrutable evils.

4. Evil Is No Evidence?

Some argue that humans should not expect to understand why God would permit evil, and so we should not be confident in our ability to assess whether some evil is gratuitous: such that God could have prevented it without thereby sacrificing an equal or greater good and without thereby permitting an equal or worse evil (Howard-Snyder and Howard-Snyder 1999: 115). Others say that God’s existence is actually compatible with gratuitous evil after all (van Inwagen 2000; Kraay 2010), although most philosophers disagree (Howard-Snyder and Howard-Snyder 1999; Trakakis 2003). Perhaps these defenses should say that evil is no evidence against God’s existence, since if each particular evil is even a little bit of evidence against God’s existence, the billions and billions of them in history really pile up.

God might have a purpose for all the evil in the world, a purpose that we do not or cannot understand, and so we should not trust our doubt that some evil in the world is justified (Wykstra 1998). Typically, this inspires the question of whether a similar argument can be made about other beliefs we have, thereby threatening to produce a deep, general skepticism about science, morality, and arguments for God’s existence (Draper 1998: 188; Russell 1998: 196-98). If God works in mysterious ways, how do I assess the likelihood that God has some inscrutable reason for tricking me into (wrongly) thinking that other minds exist, that the past exists, that an external world exists, and that I ought to save a child drowning in a shallow pond? This is perhaps the primary focus of the debate about the Problem of Evil in recent years.


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Tom is a visiting assistant professor at Spring Hill College in Mobile, AL. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Colorado, Boulder. He specializes in ethics, metaethics, epistemology, and the philosophy of religion. Tom has two cats whose names are Hesperus and Phosphorus. Website: