The most serious contemporary problem for a rational belief in God is also the oldest. The essence of positive evidence for the existence of God is the occurrence of many experiences that are not understandable unless God exists. Conversely, the essence of the negative evidence leading to the atheist’s conclusion is the occurrence of many experiences that are not understandable if God exists. The chief negative evidences have to do with the problem of evil.
The problem of evil is acute for those who hold to the traditional view that God is an all loving, all knowing, and all powerful being. A world in which there is evil seems to contradict the idea of a world created by the benevolent God.
J. L. Mackie, in “Evil and Omnipotence,” defines the problem in this way:
God is omnipotent; God is wholly good; and yet evil exists. There seems to be some contradiction between these three positions, so that if any two of them were true the third would be false. But at the same time all three are essential parts of most theological positions: The theologian, it seems, at once must adhere and cannot adhere to all three! [Mind, Vol. 64 (1966), p. 200].
According to Mackie, the problem becomes more evident if we employ some quasi-logical rules connecting the terms good, evil, and omnipotent. These rules are that good is opposed to evil in such a way that a good thing eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions (1) that a good omnipotent thing exists and (2) that evil exists are incompatible.
In the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume presented Philo’s challenge as follows:
1. The world contains instances of suffering.
2. God exists—and is omnipresent and omniscient.
3. God exists—and is perfectly good.
Nelson Pike, discussing “Hume on Evil,” reports Philo’s view as follows:
These three statements constitute an “inconsistent triad”.… Any two of them might be held together. But if any two of them are endorsed, the third must be denied. Philo argues that to say of God that he is omnipotent and omniscient is to say that he could prevent suffering if he wanted to. Unless God could prevent suffering, he would not qualify as both omnipotent and omniscient. But, Philo continues, to say of God that he is perfectly good is to say that God would prevent suffering if he could. A being who would not prevent suffering when it was within his power to do so would not qualify as perfectly good. Thus, to affirm propositions (2) and (3) is to affirm the existence of a being who both could prevent suffering if he wanted to and who would prevent suffering if he could. This, of course, is to deny the truth of (1). By similar reasoning, Philo would insist to affirm (1) and (2) is to deny the truth of (3). And to affirm (1) and (3) is to deny the truth of (2). But, as conceived by Cleanthes, God is both omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Thus as understood by Cleanthes, “God exists” and “There occur instances of suffering” are logically incompatible statements.
Since the latter of these statements is obviously true, the former must be false. Philo reflects: “Nothing can shake the solidarity of this reasoning, so short, so clear [and] so decisive” [The Philosophical Review, Vol. 72 (1963), pp. 181, 182].
This argument against the existence of God has enjoyed considerable popularity ever since Hume wrote the Dialogues.
The amount of sheer physical suffering in the human family at any one moment is staggering to contemplate. Thousands are dying daily of cancer. Thousands are so crippled that they must be carried wherever they go. Parents look with sorrow on afflicted children who will never run and play again. The loss of lives in war is terrible to contemplate, as is the maiming of the bodies and the shattering of the minds of those who survive the conflict. Millions of people suffer from malnutrition. Even the non-philosopher recognizes a dilemma: Either God wills to remove the suffering but is not able to, or God does not will to remove it.
One possible solution to this serious problem is to give up at least one of the propositions that constitute it. If one is prepared to say that God is not wholly good, or not quite omnipotent, or that evil does not exist, or that good is not opposed to the kind of evil that exists, or that there are limits to what even an omnipotent being can do, then the problem of evil is solved.
Other possible solutions suggested by various writers include: (1) suffering is a direct result of sin, (2) evil is illusory, (3) evil is a necessary defect in a good plan, and, (4) God’s power is limited. Let us take a closer look at these.
Suffering is a direct result of sin and a just recompense for it. This is the theory presented by Job’s friends. Either suffering is visited directly on the sinner or it is visited on others, especially his descendants. Christ rejected both forms of this theory (Luke 13:1–5; John 9:1–3).
All evil is really illusory. This theory, represented by certain versions of absolute idealism, is described by J. L. Mackie in this way:
Some have said that evil is an illusion, perhaps because they held that the world of temporal, changing things is an illusion, and that what we call evil belongs only to this world, or perhaps because they held that although temporal things are much as we see them, those that we call evil are not really evil [quoted by D. E. Trueblood in Philosophy of Religion, p. 236].
The most serious practical flaw of this theory is that it would cut the nerve of moral effort. If evil is illusory, why fight it? It is difficult to think of God in moral terms if there is no evil to oppose.
Evil is a necessary defect in a good plan. This theory held that some forms of evil enter into the formation of a larger good or good process. Evil seems to be necessary in high moral endeavor, since a world without evil would not present man the opportunity to make the moral decisions necessary for developing moral strength. Many of the goods we value most highly are those a part of whose excellence we owe to the difficulty of attaining them. These goods could not be costly and dangerous apart from the opposing presence of evil in the world.
God’s power is limited. Those who hold to this proposition admit that the dilemma that the original problem involved is inescapable. If we must choose between God’s being wholly good and his being wholly powerful, the sensitive mind will probably choose the former. Admittedly, God seems likely to act only in accordance with logical consistency, and in this sense to be “limited.” He cannot lie, for instance. Neither can he create a stone too large for him to lift. The notion that God is limited and in some sense finite has received much support.
There is another explanation of evil in the world, one that is compatible with the traditional theistic view. Those who hold the traditional theistic view accept the propositions that (1) God exists, (2) God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good, (3) evil exists, and (4) there are morally sufficient reasons for the existence of evil.
The position defended here is that there is no contradiction involved in the propositions that God exists and evil exists. This is not to say that there are no other plausible explanations.
Evil is a broad term whose meaning encompasses the conditions of physical and mental suffering and also wickedness. God did not originate evil; this would be incompatible with his holiness. However, he did create a world containing the potentiality of evil.
First, what is the nature of evil? Augustine viewed it as the negation of good. Considered in this light, evil should be viewed as the real privation of good. In other words, it is more than mere absence or negation, as for example the absence of feathers on a cow or eyes in a rock. Absence in these instances is not privation because the cow was not intended to have feathers, nor the rock eyes. If a man has no eyes, however, there is a privative absence of something good that he is intended to possess.
Evil, then, is the privative absence of good. Evil cannot be identified aside from, or without comparison with, that of which it is an exclusion or negation. Physical illness is the privation of physical health; it cannot even be given the status of being without reference to the positive good of which the condition is a privation. Wickedness is the privation of righteousness and holiness and does not have being apart from its referent.
Evil then is a fact and not an illusion. It is a real rejection that corrupts a part of the world that is itself good. This evil is always bad and cannot be the cause of good, since it has no status of being in independence of the good. This avoids the naturalistic claim that the existence of evil contributes to moral progress. Evil is not necessary for the existence of good because God created all things and declared them good.
Evil is actually an inevitable consequence of contingent being. This applies to both natural and moral evil; however, moral evil results from an intelligent choice of defection.
Contingent or dependent being can be conceived as “not being.” In other words, we can think of nothing in this natural world whose non-being is an impossibility. If it cannot be thought of as not being, then it is necessary and not contingent. It is better “to be” than “not to be,” and therefore any defection from being is a privative absence of good, i.e., evil. Evil then is an inevitable consequence of a world that can certainly be thought of as not being or as ceasing to be. For God to have created a world without the possibility of evil (i.e., the privative absence of good) would mean he had created a world containing only necessary being; but this is impossible, since God is the only absolutely necessary being.
There is no demonstration of limitation in God for creating contingent things that can defect from being. This potentiality for defection is the very nature of their contingency. God’s omnipotence is defined as the power to bring about everything possible, or everything not contrary to his own nature and the perfect balance of his attributes. It is not a limitation, then, that God could not create beings that were at the same time both contingent and necessary. It would actually be a limitation of God if he could not create beings that could defect from being.
God does not annul the past or deny freedom to the actualities or potentialities of contingent beings in a contingent world. Since actual occasions have freedom, some evil is inevitable. God’s power is not limited by natural events that thwart his will but is relative to actual occasions in the sense that they provide the conditions for the exercise of his creative powers.
God is not responsible for the evil that we as “parts of the whole” choose. God interacts with the world. He suffers as we suffer. We have a loving and suffering God, “the great companion … the fellow-sufferer who understands.” He receives into himself the sufferings as well as the joys of the world.
God’s omnipotence is seen as admirable, since it need not be equated with omni-causality. Moral persuasion replaces coercion as a manifestation of God’s power over us. There is no logical commitment to God’s being the active cause of all the moral evil present in the universe. In creating creatures that exemplify creativity themselves in their own small way, God permits moral evil (i.e. a defection from being), but he does not actively instigate it. He allows us to choose immorality, but he does not coerce us to do so
as an omni-causal agent would have to do. When moral evil is introduced into the world, it is through human and not through divine self-initiative. Thus we are responsible and blameable, and not God; and since God suffers as the world suffers, the pain we inflict upon our fellow creatures is ultimately inflicted upon God. Man’s inhumanity to man is ultimately man’s inhumanity to God, our fellow sufferer who understands. God suffers with us, not only in our sinfulness but also in our finitude and tragedy. Much of our frustration and lack of fulfillment can be laid to our finitude and imperfect knowledge, and not to premeditated evil toward our fellow man. However, God suffers with us in these lost opportunities and frustrations, just as he does in the consequences of our wickedness.
If the freedom of man is to be taken seriously, then when man sins he does so because he chooses to do so and is responsible and thus culpable; his sinning act is not predetermined. It is a sham battle if man is attributed freedom but only freedom that will be exercised according to predetermined choice.
Hubert P. Black is dean of education at Lee College in Cleveland, Tennessee. He received the Ed.D. from the University of Tennessee and is the author of two books.
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