What Are We Really Asking With the Problem of Evil?


I often begin to ponder the problem of evil on this site and even wrote a long 10 post series on it. In addition to that, as some people may have noticed, I’m quite critical of most theodicies that Christians offer concerning the existence of evil in this world.

I think modern theodicy has shown quite adequately that the existence of evil does nothing to threaten the existence of God. Christianity teaches that humans have free will and the existence of free will always allows for the chance for evil to occur. While some may debate whether or not we have free will, that deals more with the correspondence of Christianity to the real world, not with the internal consistency. In other words, to prove we don’t have free will would do more to question Christianity as a religion itself; there would be no need to bring up the problem of evil.

Thus, when we ask why God allows certain horrible actions to occur, we could equally ask why we continue to do them. Likewise, if God did step in to stop the most atrocious of evil actions, then the somewhat “acceptable” evils not would become atrocious and we would ask why God doesn’t stop those. Eventually, God’s duties would be relegated to ensuring that our ice cream never fell off the cone and that our internet never went out. Of course, this would destroy all free will which would negate a very important part of the Gospel. In addition to the above, what is evil is often subjective. If God were to stop every instance of evil then would we have a monarchy or a democracy? Some would argue a democracy, others a monarchy; whichever system God put in place, some people would consider it an evil. All individuality would be lost if God stopped every instance of evil, but this would be necessary if God stopped all gratuitous evil. Thus, by logical necessity (since God is consistent), if he is to allow free will then he must allow for gratuitous evil.

The above argument makes sense and, in my opinion, is a very solid theodicy. Yet I’m left feeling incomplete with it. In other words, what I have offered above is the best intellectual response that exists to the problem of evil, but it’s not satisfying. That’s not to say it’s wrong or that atheism has finally won; all the problem of evil can do for atheists is prove that an internal contradiction exists with Christianity, likewise the lack of a satisfying answer doesn’t mean the answer given is wrong. Rather, I think my answer isn’t satisfying because I’m asking the wrong question and approaching this issue with the wrong method.

I, and many others, aren’t really asking “Why does God allow evil?” We’re asking why he doesn’t stop it, specifically why doesn’t he stop the most egregious evils, yet in the Bible we see him stopping other evils. This is the wrong question to ask because we’re asking for specifics from an individual. We often forget that God is not some abstract concept that we study, but an actual person. Thus, when he acts, he has reasons for acting and sometimes doesn’t want those reasons known, or sometimes those reasons cannot be known. While some may roll their eyes (as I did) at the whole “his ways are higher,” it does make sense for specific evils and why he’d stop some and not others. Just as an infant cannot understand why his parents force this horrible mushy substance into his mouth, so too are we incapable of understanding why God acts the way he does in certain situations; it’s not that he purposefully hides it from us, it’s that by nature we’re incapable of understanding.

Yet, even this leaves me unsatisfied. Why do horrendous evils still occur? These evils are seemingly superfluous; certainly if God had a reason for allowing them we would eventually discover the reason, even if it took many generations to discover it. Yet, there are ancient evils that still baffle our minds. Here we are, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and rather than gaining clarity and seeing why God allowed it, we’re ending up with deniers of the Holocaust, celebrants, and we’re even more confused as to why it happened than we were when we first discovered it. While God’s ways are mysterious and we won’t always understand the specifics, I’m not sure this is a good answer, even if it is the right one. That is to say, while the answer is true, I’m not sure it works as an answer to the real question in the problem of evil (“Why doesn’t God just stop evil?”).

Ultimately, this points to the wrong method in answering the problem of evil. We often approach the problem of evil as an academic problem, something we see on paper that can be solved, and we especially do this in the West. But the problem of evil has only become academic because it really exists in our own lives first. We contemplate “why evil” long before we learn how to read, long before we gain critical thinking. Job was capable of questioning why God would allow evil without the aid of David Hume or Epicurus. A young girl who loses a parent (or both parents) can question the goodness of God without ever being introduced to the complex debates on theodicy. In other words, this is an existential problem long before it becomes an intellectual problem; in fact, I would argue that it’s primarily an existential problem with only the logical problem of evil (how can God and evil co-exist) composing an intellectual part.

Yet, if we pull back from the issue of evil for one second we’ll see that this is how almost all problems are concerning the questions that matter. Where do we come from? What is our purpose? Where are we going? These are primarily existential questions, not intellectual ones (they can be handled intellectually, but are then incomplete). We’ve been blinded to this because prior to Descartes and, really, Gettier, we adopted a Platonic way of understanding the world and our understanding of the world. Plato believed that our knowledge came form interacting with the ideal forms, which then translated down to this earth. Descartes also treated knowledge as an intellectual practice. In other words, every form of epistemology (save for one) that have existed in the Western world has placed an emphasis on the intellect, the mind, the nous. Even postmodernism or experimental forms of knowledge that place an emphasis on experience still, at their base, rely on the intellect (even if they later devalue it to the subjective).

Is it no wonder then that we’re woefully ill-prepared to answer the problem of evil? The problem of evil strikes every aspect of our existence, yet the epistemology we approach it with only does so from one aspect of our existence. This would explain why the answers given in any theodicy (save for Greater Good theodicies) make sense and work, but are still unsatisfying; it’s not that the answers are wrong, it’s that they’re incomplete.

In order to take on the task of providing a full theodicy, however, we first have to develop a new epistemology that addresses knowledge as gained and interpreted through every aspect of our being. Such a theodicy does exist (it’s implicit within the Early Church teachings and some Russian philosophers), but hasn’t really been systematized. In other words, while these works exist in English, the concepts really haven’t been translated. Such a teaching is still lost on the modern world and while touched upon by a few Russian thinkers (Pavel Florensky, Ivan Vasilevich Kireevsky, Vladimir Sergeevish Soloviev, to name a few), it’s difficult for Westerners to understand exactly what they’re teaching.

How I wish I could offer up this new epistemology, one that I think would work to give a more complete theodicy, but I haven’t really developed this epistemology or worked through it. I merely point all of this out to show that I think we’re approaching theodicy in an incomplete manner. If we’re approaching theodicy with an incomplete answer, then we need to stop exacerbating the problem by trying to use a failed method and revisit some of our more basic philosophies. While I think we can deal with the logical/intellectual problem of evil, that problem is ultimately superficial; no one quotes Hume at the death of a child, yet everyone questions God in such an instance. We can use Plantinga’s defense (or even better defenses) when in a debate with an atheist, but we can’t use it when counseling a man who’s been diagnosed with cancer. This means that while the free will defense, or other theodicies, are true, they’re inadequate and incomplete. But we can’t complete them with our current methods or epistemologies, we need something new. But who knows if or when that’ll ever come about.

So I leave this post not with answers, but with more questions. What will this new epistemology look like? Will it work? What will its ramifications be? Most importantly, is it true and we’ve simply ignored it for all these years? These are answers I do not have and may not have for many years. Thus, my apologies for introducing an even bigger problem to the debate, but I find it necessary.

Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 7) – A Unified Theodicy


Before presenting my answer to the problem of evil, it is better to understand the two major mistakes that the above theodicies seem to make. They will seem like petty critiques, but I will seek to show why they aren’t petty and why these problems must be dealt with.

First, the minor problem I’ve noticed is that philosophers and theologians inevitably end up using a language of being with talking about evil. Now, of course this is inevitable, but unfortunately rather than recognizing it, it often subverts the theory. The language of being (e.g. “cause,” “purpose,” etc) indicates that evil has a form, a substance, and an essence; yet evil lacks all of these things because it isn’t really a “thing.” Rather, evil is a lack of something. As the Damascene explains, “For it is inconceivable that evil should originate from good. Then we reply that evil is no more than a negation of good and a lapse from what is natural to what is unnatural, for there is nothing that is naturally evil.”[1]

To be fair, none of the philosophers in the G-G theodicies, nor Little, nor Plantinga would argue that evil has a substance. They would contend that they use this language only out of necessity, but ultimately acknowledge that evil is the privation of good. However, it seems that though the language of being is necessary to talk about evil (at least without using long, drawn-out sentences), we do begin to treat evil as though it were a substance. In using the language of being when discussing evil we begin to act as though evil does have a being, which can inadvertently impact our theodicy (I see this particularly in G-G theodicies as opposed to C-O theodicies). Perhaps it is an accident, or perhaps I am reading into these defenses what isn’t there, but it is an observation.

The second problem, and the bigger problem, is that many of these theodicies ignore worldview thinking. While worldview thinking may not be popular with some philosophers, it’s an inescapable reality; unless we are inconsistent in our views on the world, we all have a worldview. Likewise, theism and Christianity are self-contained worldviews (that overlap in some areas). In light of this, the above theodicies, with exception to C-O Theodicy, are seemingly created outside of these worldviews, or refuse to take an overall narrative into account when creating a theodicy, making the theodicy inconsistent within the broader narrative.

What we see with Plantinga’s theodicy and G-G theodicies is they aren’t really consistent with what theists say about God. Worse for Christians is they aren’t consistent with a Christian worldview. While a C-O Theodicy seeks to avoid this problem, I would argue that it fails to answer (1) how it is that we were capable of sin before the fall, but not after glorification (if we’re simply returned to our original state as Little seems to believe) and (2) the ultimate purpose for creation; the very act of creation seems superfluous if there is ultimately no point in allowing evil. I applaud a C-O Theodicy for correcting the mistakes of G-G Theodicies by attempting to place a theodicy within the Christian metanarrative and attempting to put theodicy back on the right track of fitting within the Christian context, but I believe that Little’s attempt ultimately falls short of accomplishing its goal.

If I am right in my criticisms then all future theodicies must (1) seek to do their best to avoid using a language of being when talking about evil and (2) seek to make the explanation of evil consistent within theism (especially Christianity). My attempt at a Unified Theodicy seeks to meet both of these criteria.

A Unified Theodicy can best be explained as “when gratuitous evil is met by gratuitous love.” This is simply a play on the word “gratuitous.” When applied to evil the connotation of “gratuitous” has already been explained (seemingly unnecessary). When applied to love, however, it refers to something done free of charge, or to something that is given (like a mechanic doing gratuitous work on a car, this means he wouldn’t charge the car owner). The entirety of my theory rests upon love, specifically the love of God.

Before going on, it would be best to define love. When I use the word “love” I have in mind the Greek word agape, which can refer to benevolence. Rather than reducing word after word, ultimately love refers to an act of sacrifice, specifically an act done without expectation of repayment or for which it is impossible to repay. A man might see a woman unable to pay for her groceries and he pays for them, knowing the woman will never be able to pay him back. This is a form of love and one of the higher forms at that (as it’s an act of purely altruistic sacrifice). Since sacrifice is indicative of love, the greater the sacrifice and the less likely such a sacrifice can be recompensed, the greater the act of love.

We can look in the Trinity and see that such a love does exist among the members of the Trinity. The Father shares His glory with the Word and the Spirit, while the Word and Spirit work with the will of the Father. Since the Persons of the Trinity all share in the divine essence of God (though His essence is not divided as all three are equally God), the type of sacrifice available is limited. But even in this limitation, we still see the members working to serve one another.

We also see sacrificial love with God’s act of creation, for to create means God allowed something lesser than Himself to come into existence. But then He limited His power in order to allow His creation to have free will. Such a limiting was an act of sacrifice on the part of God, which in turn is an act of love.

Both the ancient Jews and early Christians understood that the act of creation was really an act of love and done out of God’s love (not solely or primarily for His glory as many in the Reformed tradition say).[2] The deuterocanonical book Wisdom of Solomon displays that the early Jews understood that God shows His love to all of His creation (Wisdom of Solomon 11:24-26) and that everything was created because of His love. We can turn to the Damascene and read,

“Now, because the good and transcendentally good God was not content to contemplate Himself, but by a superabundance of goodness saw fit that there should be some things to benefit by and participate in His goodness, He brings all things from nothing into being and creates them, both visible and invisible, and man, who is made up of both.”[3]

Notice that the Damascene says it was out of a “superabundance” of goodness that God saw fit to create everything. While God could have contemplated Himself for eternity and lived in perfect, holy communion with Himself (since though He is one, He is three in person), He instead chose to create those who could also experience His love and love Him, though they would be lesser than Him.

Likewise, Genesis 2:9 teaches us that humans were created in order to Love God. The love man experiences doesn’t stop with God, but is also meant to extend to his neighbor (Mathew 22:37-40). Thus, man was created to love God and to love his neighbor, but to truly sacrifice demands that one has free will. After all, if I am forced to give up something then the motive behind my sacrifice is forced, which cannot be considered an act of love. Rather, in order for sacrifice to truly be a loving act, it must be freely given out of a desire to benefit the other. Continue reading

Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 4) – The Logical Problem of Evil


In dealing with the problem of evil, it is best to approach the logical problem of evil first. After all, if it’s not even logically possible for God and an evil world to co-exist then there is no point in exploring the evidential problem of evil or the existential problem of evil. We don’t attempt to find evidence for things that both exist and don’t exist in the same space and dimensions because such things are logically impossible. Likewise, if God and evil are completely opposite, that is, an all-good, all-knowing God is mutually exclusive to a world that contains even a small amount of evil, then the theist is left with nothing and there can be no evidential or existential defense; God, by logical necessity, would not exist.

One of the more famous attempts to explain how God and evil are logically incompatible with each other comes from the philosopher David Hume. As previously noted, he wrote, “Is he [God] 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?”

What Hume pointed out was that logically God cannot co-exist with an evil world, thus no explanation the theist gives will be satisfactory because it is ultimately illogical. The way Hume’s argument is structured it prevents the Christian from taking away from God’s omnipotence or benevolence in order to skirt around the problem of evil, both of which are essential to a ‘definition’ of God.

Hume’s attack against theodicy actually plagued Christian philosophers more than it should have, but for some time Christians and theists were left without an adequate explanation to the problem of evil. Around the 1970s, however, the philosopher Alvin Plantinga began to formulate a response to the logical problem of evil.

Plantinga began to take a “greater good” approach to the problem of evil, arguing that it was better that God create some creatures who are free than to create robots who has no choice in following God or to create nothing at all. Yet, in order to create beings that are truly free, He had to allow for the possibility of evil, indicating that both God and evil can co-exist. As Plantinga explains:

“A world containing creatures who are significantly free…is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but he can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so…The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good…The heart of the Free Will Defense is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good…without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has good reason for creating a world containing evil.”[1]

In a possible world where God wants freedom to exist for His creatures He must allow free will to also exist, but in doing so He must allow for the possibility of evil. If the theory of best possible worlds is correct and that the actualized world is the best of all possible worlds, then creatures who are free to choose evil, but do not, cannot actually exist. In fact, Plantinga expounds more upon his free will defense when he writes,

“Being perfectly good, He must have chosen to create the best world He could; being omnipotent, He was able to create any possible world He pleased. He must, therefore, have chosen the best of all possible worlds; and hence this world, the one He did create, must be the best possible.”[2]

If we remember that God can do all things that are logically possible, we must ask if there is a possible world that could exist where free-will agents always chose to do the right thing. Since free-will agents must have the option to choose to go against what is good, it is simply improbable that free-will agents who, though free from immorality are still not perfectly good, would continue to pick what is good.

Yet, how does all of this counter-act Hume’s argument? Plantinga begins to offer a syllogistic explanation and defense of his Free Will Defense. We can ultimately boil Hume’s objection down to a basic syllogism: Continue reading

Rethinking the Problem of Evil: A Unified Theodicy (Part 1) – Introduction


As I compose this essay, storms have ravaged the southern United States, Alabama in particular, taking well over three hundred lives. In addition to the lives lost, homes have been destroyed, priceless heirlooms lost forever, and it has been a traumatic experience that will not leave the psyche of the victims anytime soon. As theists, in particular Christians, look to an event such as this we are forced to wonder why God would allow such a tragedy. Why would God allow this particular evil to befall innocent people? This question has been asked for thousands of years and, to date, a satisfactory answer has yet to be given.

The problem of theodicy has been a problem apologists have struggled with almost since the dawn of Christendom. When Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths, the great Christian theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine found himself attempting to address why God has allowed such an evil. In fact, it is Augustine who was one of the first Christians to put together a structured theodicy (though some theodicies did exist prior to Augustine, specifically from some of the homilies by the Cappadocian Fathers)[1] that attempted to justify God’s actions rather than simply say that since He is God, He can do as He pleases.

While Christianity in the East never developed a theodicy justifying God’s actions (though the East does have a type of theodicy), Christianity in the West has never ceased searching for a theodicy to explain why God allows evil. The problem of evil has led many individuals to conclude that either God doesn’t exist, or He does exist and simply doesn’t care about humanity. It is my firm belief, however, that if one were to draw from the Eastern Orthodox “theodicy” (one that looks to man’s free will and God’s answer in the cross) while using some of the philosophical arguments of Western Christianity, one could arrive at a theodicy that helps to avoid an end result of atheism, agnosticism, or deism when confronted with the problem of evil.

Of course, when discussing the problem of evil it would be appropriate to ask, “which problem of evil?” The problem of evil can actually be divided up into three different categories: (1) The logical problem of evil, (2) the evidential problem of evil, and (3) the existential problem of evil. The logical problem of evil is concerned with whether or not a good God can co-exist with an evil world, or if one cancels the other out. The evidential problem of evil grants the idea that God can logically allow for evil, but instead argues that the amount of evil we see in this world leads us to conclude that God doesn’t exist or at least doesn’t care about us. Finally, the existential problem of evil deals with the personal evil we experience in our own lives, sometimes so great that it shakes our faith in God.

To date, no one theodicy has adequately addressed all three problems. While in the West certain theodicies have dealt with a particular category, to my knowledge no theodicy has been offered to work with all three divisions, at least not in a manner that is intellectually and personally satisfying. Thus, my goal with this essay is to provide a cohesive explanation on why God allowed evil in the first place and why He allows specific evils. I plan to accomplish this goal by turning to philosophy, early Christian writers (as viewed through the teachings of Saint John of Damascus)[2], and Scripture. Certainly this is no easy task, but it is a worthy one.

Before providing an introduction to the sections of my essay, I should note first and foremost that I do not accept my Unified Theodicy as complete or without problems. There are some answers and problems with it that I struggle with and I’m unsure about, so do expect my views to change concerning this theodicy. Rather, I am writing it in the hopes of starting a dialogue – or continuing a dialogue begun by Dr. Bruce Little – of finding a better theodicy, one beyond a “greater good” theodicy. While I believe that what I am currently offering is more complete than other alternative theodicies I’ve seen, it is by no means complete in its own right. It is my hope that someone far better than I will build upon what I have composed, or tear it apart and build something better; so long as an answer is found, I do not care.

In providing my Unified Theodicy I will compose seven sections and draw upon the works of three Christian writers (Alvin Plantinga, Bruce Little, and John of Damascus). I use Plantinga to explain the logical problem of evil with his free will defense and Little to address the evidential problem of evil with his Creation-Order Theodicy. In turn, I use John of Damascus (or the Damascene as I will refer to him throughout this essay) to answer the perceived shortcomings in Plantinga’s arguments as well as Little’s. Likewise, I justify my own Unified Theodicy by turning to the Damascene and to Scripture (in particular the book of Job).

Continue reading

Exploring the Problem of Evil (Pt. 4) – “Can God’s soveriegnty co-exist with man’s free will?”


I’m going to offer my syllogism for how God’s sovereignty and man’s free-will can co-exist. Now, this isn’t me trying to “philosophize” the issue, I’m simply taking my understanding of the Scripture (which is that both God is sovereign, knows the future, knows what actions we will do, but that we also have free will) and showing how my in my understanding God’s sovereignty and man’s free will don’t contradict each other. This is not an explanation of how I believe things work, because there is no possible way I can know how God functions outside of time, much less inside of time.

Continue reading