Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 3) – Defining the Problem


The problem of evil was best defined by the Greek philosopher Epicurus when he wrote,

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

Picking up along those lines of thinking, the Scottish philosopher and skeptic David Hume built upon Epicurus’ thinking nearly 2,000 years later when he wrote, “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Both arguments rely on the same essential points; if God is all-powerful, all good, and wants to stop evil, then why does evil exist? We know that evil exist, so either God isn’t all-powerful (and therefore isn’t God), isn’t all-good (and therefore isn’t God), or is ambivalent to our existence (Deism). Either way, God is shown not to exist, or at least the God of Christianity is demolished.

In fact, the problem of evil is possibly one of the greatest arguments not only against Christianity, but also against Theism. There are multiple people who, under the façade of intellectual objections to God’s existence, ultimately deny His existence or are skeptical of it because so much evil exists in the world. After all, if God is so powerful and so good then how could He allows two planes to crash into two buildings on September 11, 2001? If God desires to see evil eradicated in this world then why does He allow innocent children to die from AIDS when they did nothing to contract the disease? I would contend that people’s skepticism of God based upon the evil they see in this world is emotionally warranted.

For theists, one must explain the existence of evil. Some theists simply take the Aristotelian route and say that God is greater than us and therefore isn’t concerned with us. But such a conclusion creates a further problem – why create us in the first place? If He does not care for us then there is little to no reason to create us. Such an act would make no sense, unless we are arguing that God created out of necessity. Yet, if God created out of necessity then God is determined (even if by His own nature) and not really free, meaning God is limited beyond logical limits, thus disqualifying Him as God. One can easily see that the problem of evil for theists (not just Christians) is truly a problem, one that threatens to unhinge everything theism teaches.

For Christians the issue is much worse. Christianity centers on the idea that God loves His creation, enough to die for it. Yet, if God loves His creation then why does He let it suffer? How can Christians reconcile “for God so loved the world” with a child starving to death in Africa because the local warlord wouldn’t distribute the food to the child’s tribe? Or how do we say that “God is love” when a tsunami wiped out thousands of lives in northern Japan or a tornado took hundreds of lives in the southern United States? The Bible really offers no theodicy other than “trust in God,” but this is of little comfort to those suffering under a great evil.

Thus, the biggest reason people reject Christianity or reject God is because they have faced evil and all answers to evil have subsequently come up short. The problem of evil causes, on a daily basis, an existential crisis for multiple people. When a man needs to pay the bills or his family will be kicked out of their house, or a girl is kidnapped and raped, or a mother finds out her son died of an overdose, the problem of evil becomes extremely personal and it seems no rational answer can be given to explain it away. Because of this, many people tend to lose their faith when confronted with great evil.

Ultimately, for those of us who choose to continue to believe in God when confronted with evil must still face questions about the character of God. Some theologians have sought to explain away the problem of evil by redefining God, and both move to extremes. On one extreme are those who say that God doesn’t know the future (open theism) and therefore cannot prevent it. On the other extreme are those who say that everything that occurs is a part of God’s plan, thus God allows and causes evil in order to achieve His ends (fatalism).

Open Theism is a relatively new take that seeks to explain the problem of evil by denying God’s foreknowledge. Some Open Theists go so far as to say that God has absolutely no knowledge of the future, of whether an earthquake will strike tomorrow or if Cleveland will have a championship year in any sports. While God is wise and can predict the most likely future, He still can’t know with certainty what will happen; God can be taken by surprise. Others take a less extreme view and teach that God’s knowledge of the future exists, but is limited when it comes to free will agents (Richard Swinburne is a proponent of this view). Thus, while God might know when the next hurricane will strike the earth, He doesn’t know what you’ll choose to eat for dinner tonight.

If God doesn’t know the future, or His knowledge is limited on the future, then evil is easily explained; God didn’t see it coming, so He couldn’t stop it. While evil is still ascribed to humans, God didn’t know the evil would occur so He is not held responsible for allowing it, anymore than a man is held responsible for having his house broken into; he didn’t know it would happen, so why blame him?

Though such a answer does provide an answer to the problem of evil, it only creates a problem elsewhere. It is like solving a puzzle with multiple pieces – even if piece x fits in place y, it may displace other pieces and make it impossible to solve the puzzle, so just because x fits in y doesn’t mean that x is in the right spot. Likewise, arguing against God’s perfect knowledge of the future only creates more problems and ruins the entire puzzle of theism and Christianity.

The first problem we must face is that we’re left without a reason to pray. The traditional purpose of prayer is to ask God to intercede on your behalf on a certain issue and to discover God’s will for what He desires you to do in a certain instance. It is communication between God and us. But if God doesn’t know the future, then prayer is pointless. While He could give the best advice, nothing He says would actually be worthy anything; He could still be wrong, leading to your situation only being worse.

If God doesn’t know the future, then He is not “all-knowing” nor is He “all-powerful.” He wouldn’t know the unforeseen consequences of His actions, He wouldn’t know what will be done in secret, and He would be subject to events. Prophecy would be a matter of best guessing the future, but no promise of it ever coming about. Thus, the hope that God will eventually triumph over evil is a false hope; God doesn’t know that He will be able to triumph over evil, only that He guesses He will.

The ultimate problem with Open Theism is that while it may satisfactorily provide an answer to why God didn’t prevent an evil, it unsatisfactorily raises other questions about God. We are left with an even bigger problem facing the problem evil, namely that evil can triumph over good and even outdo God. Finally, God is subject to evil, because while He could commit an action intending it for good, a free will agent could manipulate the results and use the good for evil, and there’s nothing God could do to stop it because He wouldn’t know it’s coming. Thus, by declaring God’s knowledge of the future to be finite in order to explain the problem of evil, we actually make the problem of evil worse and without hope.

The other extreme in seeking an appropriate theodicy is determinism or fatalism. Such a teaching proposes that God will allow or even cause evil if it aids Him in achieving His ultimate purpose. God has points A and B and will determine exactly how everything moves from A to B. In such a scenario, we are merely characters in a book and God is the author. When a character commits murder in the book he has no choice – the author forced him to commit the murder. Thus, the murder occurred within the mind of the author and author projected it onto the book, making the author ultimately responsible for the murder. Such fatalists look at this problem and see no problem at all!

Yet, if everything is determined, why be good? If I rob a bank, why should I be held responsible for it or feel guilty for it? God obviously made me do it, so how am I responsible? The fact is that if everything is determined, then we are not responsible for anything. So while the problem of evil is explained (that God caused or allowed the evil because it was necessary to His purpose), we end up with the bigger problem of eradicating all responsibility.

Likewise, with this extreme we run into the same problem we did with Open Theism, namely why should we pray? If everything is determined and everything will occur regardless of if we have knowledge of it or not, then why pray to God to change our plight, to intervene, or for guidance? Why would we need guidance if the inevitable will occur? Prayer becomes absolutely pointless if fatalism is true.

Next, and more disturbingly, if the answer to the problem of evil is that God is the cause of evil or that every evil is necessary, then how could we trust God? God could not be trusted as honest because He would be partially evil. In order to cause evil God must be evil, that is, lack goodness. So how could we trust Him on anything, when deceiving us could be a part of His greater plan? The answer is we would have no reason to trust Him.

The final problem with fatalism, or God causing evil, is that God couldn’t exist because He would be a contradiction. In order to cause evil, one must be evil as actions flow from inner dispositions. This is why humans can commit evil acts, because inside we are choosing between good and a lack of good; we are not perfectly good. If God caused evil, then He would not be perfectly good because perfectly good means completely good, there is no absence of good. Since evil is an absence of good it cannot come from a perfectly good being. If we teach that God is the root cause of evil, then He cannot be perfectly good. If we want to argue that He is perfectly good, yet the cause of evil, then He is a contradiction and nothing that is a contradiction in itself can exist.

In conclusion, we must find a theodicy that both protects what we know to be true about God while also being honest about the amount of evil in this world. I propose that there is no need to compromise on the character or attributes of God, nor eradicate human free will, in explaining the problem of evil. But before offering my own theory, it would be best to examine some of the other theories out there.

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3 thoughts on “Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 3) – Defining the Problem

  1. I think that “the Epicurian Problem” misses a third possibility.

    If the world is not static, but changeable (and this is must be granted before there is any talk of changing anything), then such change may be in either past, present, or future.
    The fact that evil now exists rules out only one of those temporal possibilities. If God wishes to abolish evil, and is competent to do so, that abolition may be either in the future, referred to throughout the old testament as “the day of the Lord,” or it may now be in process. The Christian view is of just such an in-process time.
    One can dislike each of these views for esthetic reasons, or because we think it would be better to have evil simply obliterated in the blink of an eye. But the idea that God must not be able to do something because it has not already been completed is rather illogical.

    Whatever one thinks of the Judeo/Christian story, the possibility must be acknowledged that God could intend another method for the elimination of evil, than simply obliterating it. My own interpretation of the story of Noah and the flood is exactly to that point: If God took the course of destroying evil every time it occurred, He would be no closer to a perfected world. Almost the first story out of the arc has evil picking right up and continuing. Simple removal of evil elements changes nothing. Perhaps humans should be made incapable of evil intentions. Great. Rocks are incapable of evil thoughts. Assuming God intends something with more autonomy, that won’t do. Perhaps all consequences of evil actions should be countered and rendered ineffective? Is that likely to improve the condition of my will, or just raise my frustration level?

    I think it likely that assuming the conditions “Epicurus” did, the existence of a God and of evil, the resolution of human evil involves process, not executive fiat. If so, some time must be within that process.

    There is no logical reason to reject the idea that that time is now.

  2. It seems like your basic assumption is that God is good. That is fine, but does it arise from the evidence or is it an opinion that is being defended?

    You have done a great job of describing the various views. I look forward to reading the rest of your series.

    1. Kevin,

      You’ll be happy to know that I actually deal with that problem later on in the essay. I’ve always noticed how many theodicies simply take the proposition, “God is good” for granted. I actually seek to show how God must be wholly good or wholly evil and that if He is wholly evil then we would not exist. We exist, therefore He must be wholly good.

      Of course, there’s far more to it than that, but I’ll save it for when I post it.

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