PM5362: Problem of evil

The Problem of evil refers to the question of how an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God could permit evil to exist. Many atheists consider this a disproof of the existence of God; while from a believing perspective, it is seen as a problem in need of a solution. The problem of evil is the problem of how to account for the existence of evil and suffering in the world, especially in light of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God.

A theodicy is an attempt to respond to this problem from a theistic perspective. Theodicy is a series of attempts to solve the problem of evil with respect to God — to explain how a good God, with power to do anything, could nevertheless knowingly allow or even cause the existence of evil. The problem of evil is often conceived as an argument made by atheists against God's existence, and thus theodicy is perceived as a defence against those arguments. However, the problem of evil is deeply felt by believers too; theodicy originates, not only as a response to the objections of atheists, but also as an attempt to answer their own questions about how a loving all-powerful God could allow so much evil to exist in the world.

Atheists generally conceive of the problem of evil as a problem for theists specifically; they believe that by disposing of God, they have thus disposed of the problem of evil. On the contrary, without God, the problem of evil remains just the same — no longer, how could God permit such evil?, but rather simply how could there be such evil?. The believer cries out, God, why?; the atheist offers up the same cry, but no longer has anyone to address it to. To attempt to solve the problem of evil for atheists, there arise disciplines analogous to theodicy — cosmodicy (attempts to vindicate the fundamental goodness of the cosmos, in spite of the evils it contains) and anthropodicy (attempts to vindicate the fundamental goodness of human beings, in spite of the great evils humans have proven themselves to be capable of).

Theodicy is the attempt to justify the goodness of God in face of the evils of the world. While theodicy is a specifically theological enterprise, its post-theological consequences are anthropodicy (the attempt to justify humanity as good despite the great evils humanity has been responsible for) and cosmodicy (the attempt to justify the universe as good in face of the great evils it contains). J. Matthew Ashley writes:

In classical terms, this is to broach the problem of theodicy: how to think about God in the face of the presence of suffering in God's creation. After God's dethronement as the subject of history, the question rebounds to the new subject of history: the human being. As a consequence, theodicy becomes anthropodicy — justifications of our faith in humanity as the subject of history, in the face of the suffering that is so inextricably woven into the history that humanity makes. Mutatis mutandis, the universe story brings with it the need for a "cosmodicy." How do we think about the presence of suffering, on a massive scale, in the story of the cosmos, particularly when the cosmos itself is understood to be the subject of history? How do we justify our faith in the cosmos?[1]

Cosmodicy is the problem for atheists of justifying the fundamental goodness of the universe in the face of evil. It is closely connected with theodicy, which attempts to do this given the existence of God; yet, while many atheists think that by getting rid of God they have got rid of the problem of evil, cosmodicy demonstrates that the problem still exists, it has only assumed a different form. As one author has said "atheists are not supposed to have such thoughts"; and yet they do.[2]

A number of theologians have grappled with the relationship between cosmodicy and theodicy. Johannes van der Ven argues that the choice between theodicy and cosmodicy is a false dilemma.[3]. Philip E. Devenish proposes "a nuanced view in which theodicy and cosmodicy are rendered complementary, rather than alternative concepts"[4].

Cosmodicy is a major theme in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche[5].

Examples of theodicies

Examples of theodicies include:

  • free-will theodicy: God did not create evil, but God created free will, and humans and angels freely chose to sin, and thus evil came into the world. True free will entails the possibility of evil, even the great likelihood of evil, but not the necessity or inevitability of evil. God created a world containing free will, despite the immense risks of evil involved, for even considering those risks, the good that comes from free will is greater than the evil that may eventuate from it.
  • best of all possible worlds: this explanation suggests that this world God has made is indeed the best that God could have made; that any other world, which is better in some way, must be even worse in some other. This position is most famously associated with the German philosopher Leibniz; also well-known is Voltaire's ridiculing of it in his Candide. Leibniz argued that there are certain types of good which are only possible if evil exists — such as the pleasure which comes with relief of pain, the good of charity, the good of justice, etc. He claimed that a world without any evil must lack all these goods, and hence would be less good overall than our own world containing evil is.
  • character-building or soul-making: character can only be formed by enduring suffering, by resisting temptation and evil; these things are only possible in a world in which evil exists. The thing God values most about us is our good character, but we can only form that in a world which contains evil and suffering
  • love of particular persons theodicy: This explanation argues that, although people in general could exist without evil, the particular people who now exist couldn't. We only exist, as the people we are, because of evils which existed in the past. In a world in which those past evils never happened, although people could still exist, none of the particular people who now exist could exist — neither ourselves, nor those whom we love with all our hearts. The lives of all who now live are so deeply entwined with the evils of the past, that without all of those evils, or the bulk of them, everyone now alive would never have existed. Loving us as particular individuals, God created the world which was necessary to our existence, even one filled with evil. If God loves people in general, the best thing she could have done for people in general would have been to create a perfect world for them to live in. But if God loves particular people — the particular people who now exist — the best thing she could have done for those particular people is to create a world filled with all the evils necessary for their existence — in other worlds, the best thing God could do for us is to create the very world which now exists. To demand that God create a world without evil is to demand that God create a world without us; it is, in a sense, to say "No" to our own existence; if we truly love ourselves, as God loves us, we cannot but say "Yes" to our own being, regardless of what evils our being entails. God could have done better; but God could not have done better for us, only for other people. (God certainly could have made the world differently so one particular person's life was better, and almost everyone else's the same — but God cannot create a world in which all of our lives are better, for in such a world none of us would have ever been born.) The objection is made to this account, that it could also justify all kinds of evil acts committed by human beings, e.g. the mass murderer could claim that they comitted their crimes out of a special love for those who would only exist as a result of those crimes. On the contrary, this justification is only valid for a being who has perfect foreknowledge of the future — i.e. God. Although the mass murderer can know that certain people will only exist as a consequence of their mass murder, the mass murderer cannot claim to know and love those people as specific individuals, only as an amorphous potentiality. Only God can know and love those people as individuals, thus this is only a valid moral justification for acts of God, not for the acts of any lesser beings. This can be seen in a sense as a Nietzschean theodicy, in that it is an application to theodicy of what Nietzsche says in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamored; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, "You please me, happiness! Abide moment!" then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamored—oh then you loved the world. Eternal ones, love it eternally and evermore; and to woe too, you say: go, but return! For all joy wants—eternity.

We creatures really have no right to complain about God creating evil, for without evil we would not exist — when we are complaining about God creating evil, what we are really objecting to is our own existence, for the evil God creates is necessary to our own existence.

  1. J. Matthew Ashley, "Reading the universe story theologically: the contribution of a biblical narrative imagination", Theological studies, 2010, vol. 71, no. 4, pp. 870-902
  2. James Wood, "Secularism and its discontents: Is That All There Is?", The New Yorker, August 15, 2011
  3. see van der Ven, J.A. “Theodicy or cosmodicy: a false dilemma?”, Journal of Empirical Theology, Volume 2, Number 1, 1989 , pp. 5-27(23); see also Johannes A. van der Ven, God reinvented?: a theological search in texts and tables, Empirical studies in theology, Vol. 1, Leiden [u.a.] Brill 1998, p. 205
  4. Devenish, Philip E. “Theodicy and Cosmodicy: The Contribution of Neoclassical Theism”, Journal of Empirical Theology 4 (1992): 5-23
  5. Mark Balto, “Logos As Will And Cosmodicy”, Minerva - An Internet Journal of Philosophy Vol. 10 200
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