The Problem of Evil in the Modern World: Reconciling the existence of suffering with belief in a benevolent God
1. Introduction
The problem of evil is the greatest difficulty facing theism. A theodicy is a defense of God’s goodness in the face of evil. Since many take God’s existence to be the greatest of all metaphysical assertions, and it is the being of God which is said to ground the existence of the universe, it is a good theodicy of this sort that is required to defend theism against evil. If it should turn out that no such theodicy can be assembled, it is arguable that the reasonable person should reject theism in favor of some sort of atheism or agnosticism.
My argument is that the most familiar philosophical theodicies fail to defend theism by underestimating the nature and consequences of evil. This they do by attempting to limit the sorts of evil that must be seen to be consistent with the existence of God, and by providing responses to specific instances of evil that are inadequate. I shall extend and defend this argument by studying what it might mean to defend theism against evil, by arguing that evil presents an insurmountable issue for one popular sort of argument for the existence of God, and by criticizing the free will defense in detail. Finally, I will argue that although a successful theodicy is possible, it is not the sort that a theist could possibly believe.
1.1. Background of the Problem of Evil
The struggle to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with belief in a benevolent God has been a longstanding one. This epistemic goal has plagued the theist for centuries and the problem of evil remains the single most formidable challenge to theistic belief. J.L. Mackie in his 1955 work “Evil and Omnipotence” describes the problem as “A problem which it is surely incumbent on all who believe in an all-powerful and all-good God to solve”. What Mackie presents is a logical problem which states that the existence of evil is incompatible with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God. This logical form of the problem, and more specifically theodicy, will be the primary focus of this thesis, along with the issues raised by moral and natural evil.
The problem of evil has not been confined to the theist. In response to questions such as “Why did this happen to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” some atheists have been led to reject an objective moral order or the possibility of human free will. A specific issue with eastern religious traditions has been the necessity of reconciling belief in Karma with widespread suffering and apparent injustice. Given the predominant belief in a just world and divine retribution across cultures and religions, it seems the problem of evil permeates through all worldviews and remains an important question for the whole of humanity.
The issues of moral and natural evil and the evident rationality of human questioning have ensured the problem of evil is by no means restricted to academic or theological discourse. Particularly in the light of catastrophic 20th century events such as the Holocaust, many have found their personal faith rocked by encounters with extreme suffering and evil. A personal encounter with the problem is often a catalyst for theodicy and has been the case for the author of this thesis. This encounter has raised the question of whether theodicy, as an intellectual or emotional reconciliation with evil, is a viable or fulfilling enterprise for the faithful and faithless alike.
1.2. Significance of the Problem in the Modern World
Not only because of the attention focused on the problem by the theistic religions that have a large following in the contemporary West, but increasingly because the problem is seen as a problem for the value of life itself. In a worldview which is underpinned by a faith in progress, suffering and evil are perceived as anachronisms. Modern technology has solved or is solving many of the problems which have traditionally bedeviled human life; poverty, disease, and oppression are seen as remediable conditions the continuation of which is due to human moral failure. The incidence of natural evil which belies smooth upward progress is epitomized by events like the Lisbon earthquake.
The growing ecological awareness also raises its profile as global environmental problems are often seen as retribution for humanity’s reckless treatment of the natural world. This growing moralization of suffering has expanded the range of the problem of evil to include the moral problem of how those in the affluent West can reconcile their good fortune with the suffering of others. The problem is no longer seen as a problem for the believer in a malevolent god, with the Holocaust and events like Hiroshima often being used as proof that a world created by and governed by God would be no different from our own. The virtual collapse of theodicy in the face of overwhelming evidence of seemingly pointless and gratuitous suffering has led many to an existential crisis of faith in a god who is compatible with such a world, with writers like Elie Wiesel and Viktor Frankl providing testimony of life in Nazi concentration camps as evidence of the unbelievable nature of the events predicted by the theodicies.
1.3. Purpose of the Thesis
The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how the problem of evil has been a hindrance for those wanting to believe in a benevolent and omnipotent God. Although there are some theodicies that provide a defense for God on why there is evil in the world, it does not clarify the problem of how evil and a benevolent God can coexist. In order to complete this task, illustrations will be made to show the connection of the problem of evil in today’s popular culture and society. Through this paper, it will become evident that the problem of evil easily refutes the notion of a benevolent and omnipotent God and the modern version is not successful in defending God. This paper will revolve around ch.2 of The Problem of Pain, as it is consistent and clearly depicts the problem. Many assertions of how God/Omnipotence/Benevolence and Evil do not mix are made throughout this chapter and will be used in conjunction with other references. The main point that comes from this chapter is that if God’s intentions were to rid the world of evil in creating another, at some point it would have to have been from his hands that it exists.
2. Understanding the Concept of Evil
Evil is a term with a wide and variable meaning. When we consider it as a factor in human life, it is of two kinds: moral and natural. Our main discussion will be about moral evil. It may be defined as the conscious and deliberate doing of what is known to be wrong. It involves the making of a choice between alternatives, and a choice always involves a judgment as to which of the alternatives is better. When the wrong done is very great, the fact of having chosen what was known to be the worse alternative adds to the guilt of the wrongdoer. He is now in the position of an agent who must undo the evil he has brought about, if he can, and make some kind of amends for it, in order to escape into a better state of things. This is the position of mankind as a result of its past history. Its plight has been such that men have often doubted whether the human situation has any point or value. The doing of wrong has brought its bitter fruits, and men have often seemed to be involved in a net of evil from which there is no escape. Though moral evil is a form of activity, its effect is often to bring about a state of things in which there is much suffering. The wrongdoer inflicts harm upon others and often also brings upon them suffering which is the direct or indirect consequence of the harm he has done. Next, it is to natural evil that suffering is an evil, though there is also a sense in which suffering may be a blessing. By natural evil we mean those events which cause suffering to sentient beings, but in which there is no sentient agent and no human being who is at the time the victim of whose action it is the direct or indirect result. Natural evil may be either catastrophic, like an earthquake or slow like the onset of some long and painful disease. In natural evil, as in moral evil, the result is often to bring about a state of things in which there is much suffering. But natural evil often gives a peculiar poignancy to the suffering of its victims by giving them a sense of the indifference of the universe to their hopes and striving, and to their endeavors to make for themselves a place in the world which is a refuge from the ills of life. And it does this because its victims tend to realize that the conditions from which they suffer are due to the general state of the universe and that they are in the same case as others who suffer like things.
2.1. Defining Evil in the Context of Theology
The detail provided by these theodicies gives further depth and will be further detailed later in the paper. All of them present evidence for the mitigation of responsibility for evil by an omnipotent God and the seeking of a higher purpose. In conclusion, an exhaustive explanation of what evil is, its causes, and its avoidance is essential to any explanation for the ills of the world, from the individual to the state and up to the very world itself. Only with this shall there be a clear objective in answering the question: Is there a God, and if so, why is there so much suffering and evil?
This in-depth analysis of the concept of evil and its classification shows that its fundamental definition is often elusive, and thus the following paper will consider all aspects of evil from the intent and action of human beings to the malevolent forces of nature. It is clear that for the theist, the existence of evil is an inconsistency between belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God and the concept of evil as a privation, being that it is a lacking of goodness in itself. In an attempt to uphold belief in a benevolent God despite the existence of evil, many theodicies seek to downgrade the concept of evil’s existence, pushing the irregularity of evil with an omnipotent God, in the hope that it is not taken as an excuse from the disbelief in any kind of God. In summary, theologians and philosophers from every era try to answer for what appears to be God’s inadequate provision for the world he has created, some answering that evil and suffering are a necessary route to a higher good, that God is not responsible for creation’s fall into sin, or that evil is a testing of God’s creatures, beyond which is a greater reward. These ideas will be revisited in further detail.
A formal definition for evil remains elusive, though the term is commonly associated with “badness” or wrongdoing. Delving beyond this shallow sketch, J.L Mackie observes that evil is a moral term and classifies it into two categories: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil describes the actions of humans which cause suffering, i.e. a terrorist bombing, whereas natural evil is seen as suffering caused by events that are not the actions of any moral agents, such as a tidal wave. Though this definition is clear and simple, it is not all-encompassing, failing to define the morality of good and evil and only detailing the cause of evil and the suffering it creates. G.E.M Anscombe criticizes the term evil as fragmented and centered on the emotions of hatred and fear. She argues that it is too vague to cause analysis of crucial distinction, that there could be actions of harming life and being despicable but not completely classified as evil. Philosopher Eleonore Stumph adds to this that evil may be better defined on the human motives rather than the actions themselves. Though these definitions provide a more moral understanding of evil, they fail to encompass the concept of natural evil and whether or not it is a human construct. Finally, R.C Zaehner explores the dualism between the Zoroastrian belief of good and evil as two equal and opposing forces, and that of the Judaeo-Christian belief that evil is derived from the fall of the highest good.
2.2. Differentiating Moral and Natural Evil
Humans have been facing the problem of evil for centuries, and it is no less difficult or pertinent a problem in this current century. The existence of evil (or badness) is a recognized problem that dates back to ancient times and extends to the present.
The concept of evil can be separated into two main categories: moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is evildoing, and a choosing of negative actions over positive ones. Its more extreme form is often seen in intentionally causing harm to something. Natural evil, on the other hand, is negative states of affairs which are brought about by natural causes, and are not the result of human choice (e.g. an earthquake). Largely due to the influence of the Enlightenment and the development of science, it is in particular natural evil in the form of the problem of suffering which presents the most difficult challenge to theism that it has ever faced.
2.3. Examining the Causes and Origins of Evil
Augustine believed that this explains the presence of moral and natural evils in the world. He argued that all evil is a consequence of the sin and fall of the angels and humanity, and is essentially a punishment of, or a means to prevent further sin.
Next, St. Augustine proposed that the angelic beings and humanity were given free will because freedom is a good thing that God had wished to give. Unfortunately, the first thing that the angels and humans chose was not God, but themselves, which resulted in their alienation and a fall away from God. This created a situation where beings were not oriented to their proper good, and were instead selfishly pursuing a lower good in a destructive manner. By abusing their free will and abandoning God, the good in these rational creatures was diminished and corrupted.
He alleged that everything in the world was made with a certain purpose and design. Each thing was made to be good, and when combined, God’s creations were intended to function together harmoniously as a unified whole. According to Augustine, evil is the privation of the good, meaning that evil is not a substance unto itself, but an absence of good. He likened this to the way that a wound is an absence of health, or how darkness is the absence of light.
St. Augustine argued that evil was caused not by its existence in the world, but by the tendency to turn away from God. He saw evil as a perversion of the way things are supposed to be. In his attempts to explain the unsettling presence of evil in a world that was created by an infinitely good God, Augustine began to develop a second theodicy.
Job 2.3: “I am the man who was hidden beneath a heap of suffering, who God has ruined.”
“If everything is created by God, and if evil is something, then evil must be as much a creature as anything else.”
3. Theological Perspectives on the Problem of Evil
The problem of evil has led to constructive ways in resolving it from different theological perspectives. They have highlighted numerous reasons for the existence of evil – some of which suggesting that evil is the result of human misuse of free will; or that the presence of evil is essential in order to bring about a greater good. One scholar points out that evil is not a substance, but a perversion of the good, and that it is a necessity to have free will in order to be able to perform genuinely good actions. He uses the analogy of having to build a house, instead of it being built instantly. Although it is a greater inconvenience and pain to have to spend more time to build a house, the fact that one has a choice of when to do it makes all the difference. The value of the action is greater because one had the choice.
Theologians seeking to preserve the concept of an omnipotent and benevolent God, in the face of the magnitude of evil and suffering in the world, have argued that what appears to be evil to humans is not so from a divine perspective. One argument, known as theodicy, claims that evil is necessary in the grand scheme of the universe to bring about forces of greater good. This means that every act of evil is justified by a proportionate amount of good, and if this were not so, then God’s omnibenevolence would be called into question. An Islamic perspective on the problem of evil suggests that the world we live in is not the primary world, but a secondary world full of imperfections that serve as a testing ground for humans to prove their worth of paradise. Although having similar intentions, the theodicy that suggests evil is necessary for a greater good does not elude the problem of why an omnipotent and omniscient God would have to resort to such a plan for the world.
3.1. The Free Will Defense
The defense continues that God has created humans and jinn with free will, which is genuinely free and not preprogrammed. Free will is of great value as it allows genuine human autonomy and meaningful moral choices. However, it is argued that free will is only of value if it can lead to both good and bad consequences, of which God, of a given the free will beings, permission to bring about any one of the two. It then leads to the argument that it’s a logical necessity that if free will beings are to be able to perform actions with bad consequences, there would have to exist a reality where such actions have been done, an actual world of free creatures which is better and more valuable than any other alternative possibilities. This is known as analytical possibility. A possible world is a way this world could have been.
The Free Will Defense is the most prominent theodicy specifically developed to explain the problem of evil. It was first formulated by RJH Pojman, who states that “Evil is a privation or a parasite on the good.” This means that evil is the absence of good or a corruption of the good, brought about due to the wrong use of free will. This defense seeks to show that it is possible for God and evil to coexist without God being the author of evil. It also explains reasons why God would allow evil to occur.
3.2. Theodicy and the Existence of Evil
Theodicy is a term used in religious studies to vindicate the existence of suffering in the world with a benevolent deity. The philosopher Leibniz, one of the exponents of the theory that suffering is subservient to a greater good, coined the phrase ‘theodicy’ in the quest to “justify the ways of God to men”, with the aim to prove that the existence of evil is not incompatible with the hypothesis that there is a God who is wholly good, omnipotent, and omniscient. He considered that, given that the world God created must be the best possible world, the existence of evil must contribute to the perfectness of the world. Leibniz classified the suffering in the world into two categories, moral and physical. It is the moral suffering caused by sin that is the important element in Leibniz’s theodicy, and for this, he took the view that evil is never the end or aim but always a consequence of sin, for which, as he adds, a quite controversial point, is always the lesser of two goods, implying that a greater evil or suffering would have ensued. And so Leibniz reasoned that moral evil is permitted to bring a greater good and is subservient to a universal good which would not be fulfilled without it.
Another theodicy was that of Irenaeus, who attempted to reconcile a just God with the existence of evil through the explanation of the purpose of humanity. Irenaeus drew a distinction between the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God and believed that man was created within the image of a moral and mental likeness though was not yet in the likeness of a static and unchangeable good. Man was placed in a world containing the possibility of evil and suffering so that through using his free will to mold the world around him he may progress to the likeness of God through choosing the correct way of life over many generations and achieving it as a final and permanent state. At this point, the world which Irenaeus viewed as unfinished will cease, and only then will the likeness of God and a truly perfect world without evil and suffering be brought about. Irenaeus’ theodicy therefore implies mankind is in a process of evolution to the likeness of God and has not reached it, with the evil in the world being essential for the development and the tuition of man which is to lead to humankind achieving the likeness and a greater good. It’s quite similar to the current scientists’ ideas of evolution. This theodicy is agent-centered aiming to relieve God of responsibility for evil and instead focus on the reason for the existence of evil and its relationship to humanity.
3.3. Divine Providence and the Problem of Evil
The doctrine of divine providence says, at least, that God has a plan or purpose in the world, and that he is exercising his power to bring that plan to fruition. In general, the hope or expectation that God is looking after us and has made provision for our salvation forms an integral part of a religious outlook, and it is an outlook which takes very seriously indeed the idea that the world is a place where men and women can come to a knowledge of God and learn to do his will. If it is a commonplace in modern thought that the world is a neutral environment, it is, paradoxically enough, largely the outcome of a way of assessing the world which was itself shaped by the judgments of theologians and churchmen that ‘providential’ elements in the circumstances of men and nations are far from unequivocal and, indeed, very often mainly the projection of human wishes and ambitions.
Yet we may grant that, while belief in divine providence is bound up with belief in a God who has revealed a purpose and a character and has entered into a covenant with his creatures, the idea of a plan in the world and history and the expectation that God will bring his purpose to pass reflect an interpretation of human experience which takes very seriously indeed the moral significance of human action. If God is loving and just, his actions in human history must be seen as essentially moral in character, and from this, it follows that, in order to think of human history as under the control of a righteous and loving God, we must believe that it is in the end amenable to divine judgment, and that the good will finally win a victory over evil.
4. Reconciling Suffering with Belief in a Benevolent God
This section focuses on the attempt of John Hick in his book, England, to show that the existence of evil and a belief in a benevolent God are not necessarily incompatible. In particular, he highlights the logical possibility of their coexistence and attempts to illustrate a scenario of how this could be so. He argues that since the creation of humans in the image of God is a process, there is an inevitable “epistemic distance” between creature and creator. This means there is a “gap” in our knowledge and understanding of God’s purpose for us, akin to the relationship between a child and its parents. Hick contends that evil is necessary for the greater good in the development of human character and the soul. Although this “soul-making” theodicy has been characterized as deterministic due to the belief that it is within God’s plans and power, Hick insists that human free will is still a valid explanation for evil and is needed in order to shape those who are to know and love God.
He then makes an analogical argument, suggesting that just as pain is a warning sign that something potentially dangerous is happening in our bodies, it is a sign that something is going wrong with that which has the possibility of going right; namely, human free will. Hick further argues that God is not the cause of evil but, in fact, the source of good. He contends that God has given man the mission of overcoming evil and has sent various helpers in the form of prophets or inspired men to guide humankind in its task.
4.1. Faith and the Mystery of Evil
Pike’s vision for faith may indeed dispel the idea that God allows evil to occur to arouse pity and compassion for his followers. But it is nevertheless an idea that many will still consider to be a poignant reason as to why there is suffering in the world for the devout believer. And it is also an idea which is highly consistent with the idea of faith as a task of seeking God’s guidance and enabling progress for the restoration of a good world and human condition, which is essentially the vocation of a Christian according to Pike.
Pike, however, argues that various forms of faith involve giving up in one way or another. These kinds of faith will always maintain that God is good and the ultimate victor, but the price may be the abandonment of hope for the present life, the abandonment of the belief of God’s participation in the world, or the abandonment of hope of personal survival. Pike asserts that the Jewish and Christian faiths are real faiths which do not involve any sort of giving up. They are essentially hopeful faiths in the nature of their being about confident expectation of the godly future for both the world and human beings. The practice of such faith, however, is an extremely difficult task. It involves understanding that while God’s good world and our place in it are a high and divine goal, the malicious interruption intrudes on all human states and social institutions, and success in progress in restoration is only by the grace of God. Failure to truly maintain that God is good is a danger that leads to the total abandonment of faith when one begins to lose reality in God’s goodness, and personal faith in God and Christ becomes an incidental thing in the person’s life. Failure may result in the changing of the meaning of Christian hope as it becomes little more than hope for personal survival because the surrounding conception of that which it is to survive becomes steadily secularized. Despite these confusions and temptations, it is belief in a good God and a brighter future which is the only real hope for our world. The practice of faith will not relieve an individual from suffering but enable them to bear suffering and fight against it in hope. Failure of hope, namely the loss of faith in there being any final victory of God and Christ, is only really possible for one who does not truly believe, for it is hopelessness for the world and the human condition seen in the light of faith.
In trying to reconcile the coexistence of both a benevolent God and suffering, many turn to their faith. They will often assert that without the existence of suffering, benevolence would lose its meaning and goodness would be incapable of moral demonstration. Goodness of a certain kind, they argue, as well as compassion, courage, patience, and forgiveness, can only be expressed in conditions of suffering and adversity. There are a variety of reasons why people continue to have faith, but they all serve the one purpose of seeking some form of consolation or hope, typically in times when suffering and grief are present. This role of faith in serving as a type of coping mechanism is especially major in the circumstance of evil.
4.2. The Role of Human Responsibility in the Existence of Evil
For a non-theist, the existence of moral and natural evil in the world can be referred to as due to human wrongdoing; bad things happen because of bad choices, a clear and direct correlation of cause and effect. This view is reflected in the rich theological concept of “original sin”. In contemporary secular philosophy, the issue of human accountability has been explored in depth in the free will defence. Free will is a fundamental condition for genuine moral agency. Only through the ability to make choices can one be held accountable for their actions. However, for free will to be a significant good for humanity, it must be possible for us to choose to do what is right and avoid doing what is wrong. This necessitates the existence of a moral framework in which there are right and wrong actions, and the ability to bring about both good and evil. If one maintains that there are actions which are so morally abhorrent that He would not allow humans to do them, then they are required to also maintain that there is no free will. Hence in the words of Eleonore Stump, “The possibility of the non-occurrence of an act of E at t (evil at some time) is a free action to do something else other than E at that time. So, the possibility of the non-occurrence of an act of E at t is possible only if there is a time such that one ought to do something else other than E at that time; but if there is such a time, then an act of E at t is not a deterministic act; hence there is no evil action that was not avoidable by the doer. So, if there are states of affairs that an omniscient and all-good God will prevent from obtaining, then there are no evil acts”. Free will theodicies see human freedom as the chief good, and with it comes the potential for great evil. While this can raise questions regarding the value of free will and whether the potential for dreadful acts is compatible with a just and loving God, free will theodicies pose a significant challenge to the non-theist who claims that human activity is not to blame for the existence of evil in the world.
4.3. Coping with Suffering and Finding Meaning in the Midst of Evil
Kierkegaard explains that when one is faced with the problem of reconciling suffering with faith in a benevolent God, it is very important to maintain “faith’s paradox” as he calls it. Faith’s paradox can be understood as an inner knowledge that though it appears and may never appear otherwise that innocence is ever trampled by the evil of the guilty, God is always in the right and His justice is never really faltered. The paradox is in coming to understand that which may never be humanly apprehendable, and it is never to make an allowance for what appears to be the truth. Kierkegaard feels one must avoid making “a decided opinion about what is unequivocal else the decision concerning the equivocal becomes equivocal”. This means that man should never attempt to explain why suffering has befallen innocence, precisely because to do so would be to presume upon the will of God and attempt to alter that which was supposed to be. Man is called simply to acknowledge that it has happened, and never to attempt to make allowance for it. He clarifies that making no allowance for something is far different from making the best of it. To make an allowance for something means to allow it to pass and simply forget about it, while making the best of something is finding an interpretation for it so that it will stay and be less severe.
Kierkegaard is adamant that man is never to attempt to make the best of the suffering in the world. Simone Weil, a modern philosopher who focuses her efforts on the problem of evil, would disagree with Kierkegaard at this point. Weil saw evil as a fall from grace, and maintained that man’s purpose in life is to raise the world back to the state of grace by accepting affliction as a privilege and responsibility. She talks of decreating the world which was created in an act of pride, and creating the world in a state of humility. She sees decreation as undoing the ruin of the world by a series of tests, trials and demonstrations, all of which are acts of acceptance of the affliction for the glory of God. Weil herself participated in aiding the oppressed in war-torn countries, and saw her own affliction as a means of identifying with those she tried to help. She thusly gave her life to the oppressed in an act that she hoped would glorify God. This is a very direct and active interpretation of one who seeks to make the best of the suffering in the world.
Yet Kierkegaard maintains that to interpret the meaning of the world in any such way is a failure to embrace the faith’s paradox. As soon as one seeks a positive meaning for the suffering, it is implied that the suffering is a tool and a means to a greater end. But Kierkegaard holds that suffering is an absolute and a negative movement, and to maintain faith in God during suffering is to maintain that God is present only in the midst of His absence. Suffering is followed by a feeling of alienation and of being forsaken, and Christ himself felt forsaken on the cross. In a paradigm which focuses on the modern passion, Kierkegaard feels that the individual who suffers is closest to imitation of Christ, and it is only through uninterruption in the suffering and feeling of being forsaken that the suffering individual can feel akin to Christ. But to seek a meaning for the suffering is to block out the feeling of being forsaken, or to make an allowance for it. This brings man into a false sense of security, for an allowance for the forsaking is a form of the faith’s absurd which Hegel commits. It is belief that the suffering is really a subjective movement and that God is really present. In this case, the paradox is lost and man has made an opinion about what is unequivocal, thus changing the unequivocal. This is far from accepting the suffering as a privilege and responsibility, and while Weil sees it as an expression of love to a God who has put souls in a desperate situation, Kierkegaard sees it as an unfaithful act done out of despair.

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