The following series of posts under the title “The Problem of Evil” are an adaption of a paper I wrote in 2012. I made a number of changes in an effort to make the content clearer and more ‘blog-friendly.’ I want to thank my wife and my friend Gary Fields for their help along those lines.
THE PROBLEM OF EVIL — What’s the problem?
The God of the Bible has revealed to us many of His varied and wonderful attributes through Scripture. We learn He is eternal, good, wise, just, and powerful (just to name a few). He possesses these qualities in their infinite forms, and they are eternally inseparable from His essence. He is not, for example, simply knowledgeable, He is omniscient—His knowledge is the epitome of knowledge. His goodness, the epitome of goodness. Of course, this is perfectly acceptable when our eyes are glued to the pages of our favorite systematic theology, but when we gaze at the world around us, we may encounter a problem. If these things are true about God, shouldn’t our world be different—better? If God is loving and powerful, why does He allow the vast amounts of evil we see around us? This problem—“the problem of evil”—is classically stated by David Hume. “Is [God] 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?” The problem of evil is a common defeater argument used by atheists to disprove or discredit Christianity. Understanding the argument (in its various forms) is an invaluable tool in apologetics.
Hume’s formulation of the problem could be categorized as the logical problem of evil. Since Hume, there have been many other atheist philosophers who have levied variations of this argument against the existence of God. In addition to the logical problem of evil there is the probabilistic problem of evil (or the “evidential problem”), which has arisen more recently, and is the predominant form of the problem used today. Over the coming weeks I want to deal with the problem of evil (in its two major forms) and then work toward a biblical theodicy (that is, a theory of the actual truths about God and the world which reconcile His power and goodness to the evil we experience).
DEFINITIONS AND PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS
Before continuing any further, it will be helpful to define terms. First, while variations of the problem of evil can apply to all sorts of theistic belief systems (Judaism, Islam, etc.), here, we will deal with the problem from a distinctly Christian perspective. All of God’s attributes, traditionally understood within orthodox Christianity, will be presupposed. For example, there will be no need to examine defenses that deny God’s omniscience because these defenses disqualify themselves by virtue of contradicting the clear teachings of Scripture.
Another term that should be defined is evil. Here, evil will be used in a broad sense. It can mean human evil (understood to mean the negative effects of a choice of a free-agent), or natural evil (evils that exist outside of man’s power, such as natural disasters and sickness). Some may point out that evil is sometimes understood in terms of privation. That is, evil does not have substance of its own, but is the lack of something good. This may be true, but the problem of evil still stands. How can God, who is intrinsically good, allow the world to lack any goodness? Defining evil in terms of privation does not solve the problem of evil.
We should also clarify what we mean by problem. As was mentioned before, the problem of evil is typically divided into two categories; first, there is the logical problem of evil, and second, there is the probabilistic problem of evil (more commonly known as the “evidential problem”). The first attempts to prove that the biblical God and the existence of evil are logically incompatible. The second does not claim a logical problem per se, but claims that given the amount of evil observable in the world, the existence of God is highly improbable.
Finally, we should clarify the difference between what is considered a defense with regard to the problem of evil, and what is called a theodicy. While every theodicy is a defense, not every defense is a theodicy. A defense merely attempts to find a state of affairs that could possibly be; while a theodicy attempts to reveal the state of affairs that actually is, both, of course, aiming to solve the problem. We will examine some popular attempts at theodicy in a future post.
To conclude, we will also discuss the problem from a pastoral perspective, and then work toward a biblical theodicy. Afterword, if the time can be found, I would like to turn the tables on the skeptic and deal with what could be called the “atheist’s problem of evil.”
I hope you will stick with me over the coming weeks as we explore this important topic. If you would like email updates of this blog you can subscribe for free on the upper right side of this page.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Merchant Books, 2009), 81.
Bruce A. Little, God, Why This Evil? (Hamilton Books, 2010), 5–6.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978), 30.
Saint Augustine, Confessions (Simon & Brown, 2012), 113; Little, God, Why This Evil?, 83.
Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 27–28.