On the Problems from Evil

On the Problems from Evil

The problems from evil, while difficult, do not ultimately represent a defeater for reasonable belief in God.

The Problems from Evil—that is, the multiple kinds of problems that arise from evil’s existence—can be generally stated as: If God is so good, so loving, and so powerful, then how is it that evil (or pain) still exists?

From here, there are three broad kinds of problems: the logical problem from evil, which takes a deductive form; the evidential problem from evil, which focuses on the probability or likelihood of theism/Christianity being true; and the existential problem from evil, which tends to be more personal in nature.


An Overview

Theologically, evil itself may or may not be seen as a problem, depending on one’s particular views. But for many it is. Not just the emotional distaste for injustice or other wrongs, but the ideological problem, which is, that it exists at all. Generally speaking, problems from evil (“PoE” from here on out) fit most commonly in the realms of apologetics and philosophy of religion.

Responses to PoE come in two kinds: a theodicy (a term coined by Leibniz in the 18th century) has a very long history, stretching back to the early church. This is a response in the actual world, answering the question: Why would God allow evil/pain to exist here? The other kind of response is a defense, which has only been around since the last half of the twentieth century (pioneered by Alvin Plantinga). A defense seeks to show that belief in God is reasonable in some possible world, which is to say, it is internally consistent. Of course, this does not mean to imply belief in God is not reasonable in the actual world. It simply points out that we cannot always know the reasons God has, and so putting forth a specific reason (a theodicy) may not be appropriate. For my purposes here, I’ll use “response” when either of the terms “theodicy” or “defense” can fit.

Two more points are helpful here: (1) The distinction between weak and strong responses. (And to note, this idea is not unique to the PoE.) A stronger response seeks to answer more, yet it is at the same time liable to more. A weaker response is the reverse. A way to think about this is if you were standing on a tree branch. The farther out you go, the more you can reach, but then, at the same time, you have the greatest chance of falling. This is like the stronger response. On the other hand, by staying closer to the trunk you swap your ambition for security (similar to a weaker response). Most theodicies could be considered “stronger” responses, while defenses are often “weaker.” Important to note here, the use of “stronger” and “weaker” is not to imply better or worse (as may be understood in a colloquial sense). Rather, it’s about finding the right response to the challenge at hand.

The other introductory point is about gratuitous evil. This is evil so bad that it is inconceivable that there could be a good reason for its existence. There are a couple factors to consider here. First, what makes gratuitous evil gratuitous? We can certainly point to (uncontested) examples of it. But the real question I’m driving at is: Why are the “lesser” evils not gratuitous? This, of course, is a question of standards, namely: Who makes them? Another facet to this is an argument put forth by Michael Peterson: “Those who agree that God should allow man significant free will and who also insist that God must not allow any gratuitous evil . . . are unwittingly asking for the impossible.”[1] What he’s putting forth (and what William Hasker uses in his PoE argument) is that people are not truly morally free (for better or worse) if gratuitous evil were not a possibility. The problem, in such a case, is not God, but us.


A Brief Survey

While the question of Why evil? dates back as far as we have recorded writings (consider the case of Job), here I’ll look at a few significant responses that are specific to the PoE.[2]

Soul-making Theodicy Irenaeus (2nd century) believed God allowed evil as a part of our sanctification. This is not unlike eating your vegetables or going to the gym; we must endure the bad/hard to become the better versions of ourselves. Free will is the vehicle for which evil enters the picture (not God). 

Free-will Theodicy First put forth by Augustine (4th century), this posits that evil was a privation of good, not a thing in itself. Similar to Irenaeus, he also saw evil as a result of the free-will of people. (Thomas Aquinas [13th century] picked up this privation concept, though his purposes were not to defend God’s existence in light of evil; his was more akin to a thought experiment.)

Free-will Defense Alvin Planting (20–21st century) used a similar starting point to show how the deductive argument from evil did not succeed. He was responding to an 18th century argument, which J. L. Mackie (20th century) popularized in the 1950s. (Later, in 2004, he upgraded his defense to a theodicy [“O Felix Culpa”] using the best of all possible worlds, atonement, and the divine incarnation.)

Best of all Possible Worlds G. W. Leibniz (17–18th century), responding to claims that God was either too limited or that the biblical view was too improbable, put forth the best-possible-worlds view, appealing to a kind of skepticism about what it really takes to get to “best” (as a defense against questions like, “what if one less bad thing existed?”).

God’s Megaphone C. S. Lewis thought we were made primarily to love God and evil in the world was God’s way of drawing our attention to him. The philosopher A. C. Ewing came behind him and gave this view a little more teeth, adding that it is only with evil that we can display courage and other higher forms of love.

Greater-good Theodicy Richard Swinburne (20–21st century) argued that the good of free choice outweighs the bad of evil, and that any harm God allows to humans in this life will be more than compensated in the next.

While I can see value in each of these, I do not at present feel the need to hitch myself to one specific camp (that is, at the exclusion of the others). Is it true, as Swinburne believes, that God really does compensate us in the afterlife? Maybe. Is freewill worth so much as all of this evil we must endure? Perhaps. Or is this really the best possible world? I am inclined to believe that it is (with Plantinga, due to the incarnation and atonement). But again, how can one gauge any of this? Perhaps the reason why evil is such a “problem” is that there are so many answers that really are beyond our purview. It is for this reason that Skeptical Theism—very generally this is the idea that finite beings would likely not be able to understand the comings and goings of an infinite being—has become a much more attractive position that I initially thought. If I had to “pick one,” I would likely settle here. This, of course, does not necessarily lead to an agnosticism (or atheism) about God in general. The Christian is still right in believing the Word of God and the other core Christian doctrines. This position simply acknowledges that it is not necessary for us to know everything to trust God and his goodness.


Use Cases

Ironically, arguments for and against the PoE are rarely used (as far as I have seen) in places where such evils are most rampant: in majority-world contexts. Rather, it is often reserved for debates in the affluent West.[3] What does this mean? Are these ultimately just frivolous debates, where, perhaps we should all just get back to work and do the things that will really move the needle? I don’t think this is quite right. Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir looked at the effects of scarcity on the behavior of otherwise intelligent people.[4] When the health or finances become scarce, they found that people became (as may be expected) quite myopic, focusing disproportionately on survival and making poorer quality decisions than they might have otherwise. Ultimately, I think this is what’s happening with our discussions of the PoE. As a society, in the West, we are no longer fighting to survive day to day, and so we can focus on more “distant” issues.

There are two primary audiences that a response to the PoE can be used: To defend Christianity in the intellectual arena of the world; this is us providing a witness. And to build up the faith of those already following Jesus.

Amongst the World It is our job, not to win an argument or prove a point, but to show how our position is reasonable, and, perhaps, how it is most reasonable. Those we are dialoguing with are captives of the Evil One (cf. Rom. 6:15–23). This must stay in the forefront of our minds. That does not mean we go easy on their arguments. But it does mean that we must see them first as those needing salvation (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18–20). We engage them not as enemies, but as captives we hope to one day win to life.

Amongst Believers The other case for these arguments may show up within the church (“Is what I am staking my life on internally consistent or reasonable?”). These are questions that we should be prepared to discuss.

“Just Believe” In some churches in the West today, there is a “just believe” posture, which is, sadly, not so uncommon. It can take several forms, one of which is the more caricatured version which says something like: “Too much learning is bad for you.” Sometimes this shows up as a fear of “science;” other times it treats “philosophy” like a bad word. Another popular form would be extreme theological positions. In more charismatic circles, asking too many difficult questions can be seen as a sign of disbelief; in more reformed circles, posing hard questions can be seen as having an undeveloped view of God’s sovereignty.[5]

Instead of writing-off these people, we should see this as an opportunity to disciple our brothers and sisters, to help them see that (1) there are reasonable answers, and (2) these issues are not a threat to their (or our) faith.


What Comes Next

Here are a couple research questions that are the most interesting to me:

1) How can probabilistic math (and the associated responses to the PoE) be made more accessible to the non-specialist in the church?

2) How can we develop more emotions-conscious responses? This can be anything from a kind of filter which helps our church leaders separate an existential- or pastoral-type question that is framed as a logical-problem from an actual logical-problem question. Or, more interestingly, it can look like tapping into the effects and usages of story.

For the person looking to learn more, what is not in short supply are quality written works: For a general starting point, see Chad Meister and James K. Dew Jr’s God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views. For a deeper dive along similar lines, the same authors also have God and Evil. For a more in-depth look, with theistic and non-theistic sides represented, see Justin P. McBrayer and Daniel Howard-Snyder’s The Blackwell Companion to the Problem of Evil. And for a similar-level treatment of probabilistic arguments, see Daniel Howard-Snyder’s The Evidential Argument from Evil. Mark Larrimore has put together a helpful (but not exhaustive) reader called The Problem of Evil.



[1] Michael Peterson as quoted in William Hasker, “The Necessity of Gratuitous Evil,” Faith and Philosophy 9 (1), 1992.

[2] PoE is not limited to Christian or theistic responses; it is an issues that has been addressed (in some form) by Plato, Plotinus, and others. For my purposes here, I am focusing only on PoE that pertains Christianity in particular.

[3] John Bowker, in his book Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World, has attempted to look at how the major religious beliefs around the world address suffering. The point I am making here still stands: In the affluent West, we tend to be more occupied with these questions than in do the less-rich of the majority world cultures.

[4] Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity (New York: Picador, 2014).

[5] These are extreme examples to illustrate the point. In real life, most people are much more nuanced. Also, these caricatures are not limited to the topic of the PoE.