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Monday, January 3, 2011

The Logical Problem of Evil

If God is so good, how can he allow such evil to exist in the world? This easily one of the most popular atheistic arguments, next to The Omnipotence Paradox and The Omniscience/Free Will Paradox. For a few thousand years, it was a solid argument against the biblical God, but has now been resolved.

The Problem of Evil

The original Problem of Evil is often attributed to an ancient Greek philosopher named Epicurus, who lived from 341-270 BC. It first went like this:

  • If an all-powerful and perfectly good god exists, then evil does not.

  • There is evil in the world.

  • Therefore, an all-powerful and perfectly good god does not exist.

This argument claims that the existence of evil in the world is not consistent with the characteristics of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God. This argument was eventually refined into the following:

  • God exists.

  • God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

  • A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.

  • An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.

  • An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.

  • A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.

  • If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.

  • Evil exists (logical contradiction).

The argument then says that a God who claims omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence cannot exist if there also exists evil in the world. The biblical God claims these three attributes, and there also exists evil in the world, so the biblical God cannot exist.

After all, if God was omnipotent, and omniscient, then he must not be omnibenevolent, because he knows evil is there, and has the power to stop it, but does not apparently will it.

If he is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then he must not be omniscient, because he has the power to stop it, and wills that it should be stopped, but does not apparently know it is there.

If he is omnibenevolent and omniscient, then he must not be omnipotent, because he knows evil is there, and wills that it should be stopped, but apparently has not the power to stop it.

The problem of evil went unanswered for about 2000 years, but now, philosophers and theologians mainly consider it sufficiently refuted by Plantinga's free will defense.

Evil and Free Will

It is commonly admitted among theologians and philosophers that God's power does not extend to logical contradictions. For example, he cannot create a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor. It's a contradiction of terms. By the same logic, he cannot force an agent to freely choose good.

Therefore, Plantinga argues that it is impossible for God, even being omnipotent, to create a world of free creatures in which there is no evil. Plantinga summarizes his argument:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) 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. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. 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.”

It is impossible to create a world in which the creatures are free to be morally good and morally evil, and yet they cannot choose evil. It is equivalent to say that the creatures both are, and are not, free. It is just as impossible as creating a four-sided triangle or a married bachelor. It would be like bringing the agent to a fork in the road and telling him he may travel either way, yet one path is clearly blocked. Granting the freedom to travel either path would then be meaningless.

So not only are the attributes of the Christian God (omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence) not logically inconsistent with the presence of evil in the world, but rather it seems that it is absolutely necessary in order to achieve any good.


Dan +†+ said...

Well said my friend. Your post actually made me love God all the more, if that was even possible. I like Plantinga, never heard of Alvin Plantinga until today, so thank you for that. I will be researching his work more in my every constant search for truth.

Blessings to you,

Laughing Ninja said...

Thank you for your kind comment. I felt the same when I read about this. Through my brief studies in philosophy, The Problem of Evil was always spoken of as an insurmountable obstacle for theists. I was grateful to read that truth always wins out in the end.

Quotidian Torture said...

A couple of objections:

I'd agree that free will necessitates the capacity for harmful behavior, but what does that say about heaven? If there free will in heaven? And if there is, do people harm each other there?

Free will might explain why god allows humans to be dicks to each other, but it doesn't explain why god allows all sorts of other terrible things to happen. Would stopping hurricanes infringe on our free will? How about ending genetic diseases, which kill thousands of innocent children a year?

And finally, a hypothetical. If humans could inflict excruciating agony on each other just with our thoughts, that would certainly result in an increase in human suffering. Is the fact that we cannot a violation of our free will? If you don't think that it is, then would removing our ability to, say, shoot each other, be a violation of our free will? Would removing our ability to starve to death be a violation of our free will?

(Also, and this is completely unrelated, but are those Spider Jerusalem's glasses you're wearing in your profile picture? Because that's awesome and I want a pair.)

Cristofer Urlaub said...

That's actually a very valid point and I'm glad you brought it up, but keep in mind that there are two versions of The Problem of Evil. There's the Logical Problem of Evil, and then there's the Evidential Problem of Evil. While each of them address both human actions and natural evils (weather, disease, etc.), the Evidential Problem of Evil seems to focus more on these “gratuitous evils” than the Logical version does. I do not make this distinction in the post because I was going to address the Evidential Problem of Evil separately, then go back and change the title to this one accordingly.

So in short, what I refer to in this post is the Logical Problem of Evil, which is now widely considered refuted. What you refer to in your comment (which is entirely valid) is the Evidential Problem of Evil. I speak of evil caused by humans choices, you speak of random events or events without agents. I'll be fair and honest and say that I don't have a clean, clear answer to this. I admit that natural disasters are terrible things and genetic disorders seem cruel at best. However, there are answers which I'll address in detail in the next week or so, such as the “soul-making” or Irenaean Theodicy, but I also admit that while these answers can be called “evidence” that God is logically consistant with evil, they are far from “proof”.

I'm sorry, I lied. That wasn't short at all. And yes, those are Spider Jerusalem's glasses, and they are awesome. I got them at a comic shop years ago, but now I can't even find them on eBay.

That was a very good comment, though. Thank you very much.

Quotidian Torture said...

Thank you thank you THANK YOU for not giving me a "mysterious ways" type response. You have no idea how refreshing it is to hear someone honestly say "I don't know" without trying to hedge it.

I confess that I'm not terribly well versed on the Problem of Evil. It just seems to me that any deity which would create polio, ebola, and smallpox can't exactly be all that great. I look forward to hearing your other arguments, though.

Dan +†+ said...


>>Would stopping hurricanes infringe on our free will? How about ending genetic diseases, which kill thousands of innocent children a year?

Or abortions that kills 53 million in 30 years, I digress.

We must understand that we are now in a fallen creation. Creation fell when Adam fell, therefore sin, so to speak, killed creation. As a result, we live in an imperfect world, with the effects of sin running through it. We see that the universe is running down. That is, everything is moving toward chaos, becoming less organized. Furthermore, because sin is in the world, mankind is unable to live in harmony. Nations rise against nations, and peoples against peoples. War and conflict occur with the loss of life, and with injuries to those who survive. Devastation is left in its wake.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

QT - That comment made my day. I also look forward to hearing your insights and opinions in the future, and please stay tuned for a future post about your concerns.

I have ideas about why so many people seem reluctant to say, “I don't know,” but that's a topic for another post.

Seth said...

You did not yet address the question: Why did God not simply create people with much kinder dispositions? That is an important one to consider.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Actually, I'm not sure how that's even relevant, and for two reasons. One is that a person's personality is basically the sum total of all decisions and experiences made throughout their life. Whatever trait God would have given a person at the point of creation (and such traits do exist, as personality is influenced by genetic factors) would only be a small fraction of the determining factors.

Second, it would not help if God made a person “much kinder”, because the Problem of Evil can work if there is even one instance of unnecessary evil. It would not be a workable solution for a person to be much kinder, but which I assume you mean that he merely did less evil, or significantly less evil. For your solution to work, the individual would have to never do any evil at all. However, if God created an individual who never did any evil at all, then it wouldn't mean anything when the person chose to do good, not to mention the issue of infringing on that persons free will.

As I explained above, evil must be possible if good is to be possible.

Mithdia said...

Well I am interested in the theory of omniscient god and I think it contradicts free will.

Because if god is omniscient doesn't that mean that he does know the future? And if god does know the future doesn't he also know exactly what choices we are going to make. This of course depends of the definition of omnisciency and if it includes knowing the future.

If it does include knowing the future (note the word knowing) then that would contradict with free will because he would know what WILL happen not what COULD happen, wouldn't he?

And if he was omniscient at the moment of creation then wouldn't he have known the future of every human from the moment he created Eve (because Adam would have had hard time reproducing alone? XD). And wouldn't that make him malevolent knowing all the evil humans would cause?

Cristofer Urlaub said...

First of all, let me thank you for commenting. You bring up two issues here. One relating to Free Will and the other about God's accountability for our actions. I'm only going to address the second one here because I notice you also commented on a post about Free Will and I can address that issue when I reply to that comment.

So you point out that God is aware of all of the evil that humans would cause, but He decided to go through with it anyways. Doesn't that make Him a huge jerk? I would say no for several reasons, but the most relevant to this post is that evil is actually necessary. It may be counter-intuitive, but it would not actually be ideal if there was no evil in the world. Pain and suffering are important for our growth.

As support for this idea, I offer as evidence every spoiled, whiny little brat you've ever known. Sure they may get everything they want and their parents may cater to their every whim and fancy, but for someone who has had it so easy, don't they seem to complain a whole lot? Don't they seem even more unhappy than those who have seen some hardship?

You're argument hinges on the idea that God should have avoided creating evil. I think the opposite is actually true. Having a certain degree of evil in the world is actually very important for our overall happiness.

Anonymous said...

Epicutus' logic is sound. Individuals can believe in a god, just not one that is both 'all-good' & 'all-powerful.' Freewill does not solve the 'problem,' as there are degrees of good & evil. An all-powerful/all-good god might make any number of freewill universes that opperated within the multiple degrees of good.
If god is all-powerful, then god is not all-good. This is in alignment with the capricious bastard of the O.T..
But then, why should humanity care aboutthe nature of a mythical being.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

His logic is not sound, and what you propose is a contradiction. You say that God could create a world in which we are free to choose what we do, as long as it is, to some degree, good? Then we are not free, are we?

Further, not all actions are always good. Sometimes it is immoral to kill, sometimes it is moral. So even if God created a world in which only operated in degrees of good, we would still have a conception of what it is to kill, to steal, to lie. God would have to frequently wipe our minds of these ideas, or take control of us in order to keep us from performing these actions when they would be considered "immoral". That doesn't sound like freedom either.

Also, if the world operated only within degrees of good, then it wouldn't really make any difference. If the most evil, immoral action we could conceive of committing is going to church once a month, rather than once a week, then going once a month would still seem like a repugnant immorality to us. It would literally be the most evil repugnant thing we could conceive of. There would be millions of non-believers crying out, "If there was a God, how could He suffer such an evil as this fellow only going to church once a month?"

So to create a world that only operated on degrees of Good is a contradiction, but even if he did it, it probably wouldn't change anything.

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