Problem of Evil

Introduction

The problem of evil has been widely discussed by philosophers and theologians and is an argument against God’s existence or at least against trust in God. The problem of evil is the proposed contradiction between the existence/evidence of evil and the essential qualities of God. There are two individual problems:

  1. The very existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of a loving God (The logical problem of evil)
  2. Our observations of evil in the world make it unlikely that there is a loving God (The evidential problem of evil)

When evaluating evil it is also important to note that there are two types of evil

  • Moral – Brought about by free will (e.g. punching someone)
  • Natural – Not brought about by free will (e.g. cancer)

We sometimes confuse the two. For example world hunger appears to be a natural evil but is the result of moral actions. World hunger is the result a lack of distribution of wealth and could theoretically be overcome fourfold by the annual income of the world’s 100 wealthiest​ people.1

As this is an argument it carries a burden of proof. The burden of proof lies with those arguing against God. Unless the argument can be shown to be successful, then it fails.

The Logical Problem

The logical problem of evil dates back to at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (~300 BC) who reasoned as follows:

  • Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
  • Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
  • Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
  • Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

Epicurus seems to forget omniscience in his reasoning which should be included as it is highly relevant to the discussion.

Immediately for Mormons, there appears to be a rather obvious response to the logical problem which is not applicable to more mainstream theists. In Mormon thought, God is not omnipotent in the sense that he created the universe ex nihilo, but instead some things are co-eternal with God. As long as there is even the possibility that a trade-off needs to be made (sacrificing a small pain for a greater good) then we can accept this as a solution to the problem. We are familiar with this concept such as giving a child a vaccination, which causes a small amount of pain but for a greater good.  So the Mormon solution is that God isn’t omnipotent if you define it as God can do anything at all.

Blake Ostler argues that God may justifiably allow some evils. Whatever evils occur are:

1. Unpreventable by God consistent with individual autonomy.

2. Unpreventable by God without thereby preventing a greater good.

3. Unpreventable by God consistent with eternal laws 2

From a more traditional Christian perspective, Alvin Plantinga famously argued against the logical problem of evil and reasoned as follows:

It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures 3

The solutions to the logical problem of evil have been accepted by most philosophers. J. L. Mackie said:

…the problem of evil does not, after all, show that the central doctrines of theism are logically inconsistent with one another. But whether this offers a real solution of the problem is another question. 4

To reiterate, in order for the logical problem to be unsuccessful, it just needs to be shown that it is possible for God to exist while evil exists. 

The Evidential Problem

The evidential problem looks at the distribution or the nature of evil we see and asks how it is consistent with a loving God. Any rational human would be horrified at some of the evils that occur. All attempts to refute the evidential problem seek to offer a theodicy, which is a reason why God would allow evil. 

The most famous response to this argument is from John Hick who argued for a soul-making theodicy:

Men are not to be thought of on the analogy of animal pets, whose life is to be made as agreeable as possible, but rather on the analogy of human children, who are to grow to adulthood in an environment whose primary and overriding purpose is not immediate pleasure but the realizing of the most valuable potentialities of human personality 5

John Hick argues that God deliberately created men “unfinished” and although this makes God partly responsible for evil, it would be for a justifiable reason (for personal growth). It is certainly the case that virtues such as patience and compassion cannot be developed without opposition and trials. With this in mind, we can assess whether the environment we find ourselves in is likely compatible with the designs of a loving God who wishes our growth.

Specific assertions relevant to the emotional problem of evil:

  1. Amount: There is too much (quantitative) evil for there to be a loving God, we don’t need that much to cause a greater good
  2. Intensity: There is evil of too great intensity (qualitative) for there to be a loving God
  3. Natural evils: Natural evils are not necessary, we could get all the opposition we need from moral evil
  4. Pointless suffering: Lots of suffering seems pointless and has no greater good
  5. Intervention: God seems to intervene in a way inconsistent with a loving God

Each of these questions will be discussed below to determine whether we have good grounds to disbelieve in a loving God. In summary, even though we are rightly horrified by the evils we see in the world, forming a sound argument against a loving God from this fact, proves unsuccessful. 

1. Amount

Assertion: There is too much (quantitative) evil for there to be a loving God, we don’t need that much to cause a greater good

When speaking about the amount of evil in the world, it is useful to look at it logically and objectively.

How do we know how much is normal/optimal or how much God is actually doing? We do not appear to be in any position at all to say how much evil there is in the world. What are we comparing it to? God may potentially be stopping 99.99% of all evils and we may not know. 

We also are not in a position to say that God hasn’t helped a person who experiences a particular tragedy. We can say that God could have stopped an attacker by making his heart stop, but that’s only one part of the situation. What about the other ways God could be active in this situation, the healing of the victim, the lifetime of strengthening the individual ready for this moment, the healing of the family involved etc. Surely God would not be limited to “Shall I stop this evil or not”.

Conclusion: We are not justified in saying “there is too much evil for there to be a loving God”.

2. Intensity

Assertion: There is evil of too great intensity (qualitative) for there to be a loving God

When speaking about the intensity of evil in the world, it is useful to look at it logically and objectively.

Again, we are not in a position to say that God hasn’t already already eliminated <insert unknown evil here> and left us with the lesser evils which we think are terrible. If we expect God to eliminate some types of evil then it’s a slippery slope to eliminating all evil. For example, if God did go ahead and eliminate some birth defects then would we be happy with the result? We would then be asking why God didn’t eliminate some other birth defects, or Asthma, or headaches, or stubbed toes.  

If God did choose to eliminate some evils, he could either do it incognito (e.g. every time someone is about to encounter suffering they suddenly get distracted and do something else), in which case we wouldn’t attribute it to God and would not know these evils because they are not part of our experience, we would then consider headaches as an awful evil and be asking why God couldn’t do a little more. Or he could do it obviously like stopping bullets in mid air, but we would soon catch on. We should expect to see examples of evil/suffering that we consider awful only because we are able to compare them to other smaller evils.

Conclusion: No matter what world we find ourselves in, we can always say the something more could be eliminated. So we can’t be justified in saying there exists evil that God should have eliminated.

3. Natural evils

Assertion: Natural evils are not necessary, we could get all the opposition we need from moral evil

It should be clear to Mormons that because there are things that are co-eternal with God, there may be things which simply cannot be otherwise.

Blake Ostler said:

The natural tendencies of matter once organized are based on eternal principles…Because these natural tendencies or organized matter exist independently of God’s creative fiat, the possibility of indiscriminate natural evils is necessary to any creation God could bring about

These events are features of any natural order that can exist as a cosmos rather than a chaos. God’s choice was to have a chaotic state of affairs or an ordered state of affairs having the natural laws that actually obtain. Because only an ordered state of affairs can function as a vale of soul-making, the choice to create this world and the ordered cosmos is an expression of His love for us 6

It may be the case that natural evils are inseparable from natural goodness. For example the same biological laws that allow bodies to heal naturally after a cut also allow natural evils such as skin disease.

Conclusion: There are laws that are co-eternal with God. If he orders a world then it may necessarily be the case that natural evil can exist. We are not justified in claiming that the very existence of natural evils points to an unloving God.

4. Pointless suffering

Assertion: Lots of suffering seems pointless and has no greater good

We can now move on to the fact that it appears at least some specific instances of suffering/evil appears pointless.

William Rowe argued in 1979:

P1. There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (Factual premise)

P2. An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. (Theistic premise)

C. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being. 7

Again, it should be clear to Mormons that God is not defined as omnipotent in the traditional sense, however the argument could still be sound for a maximally powerful God (in which there are things that are co-eternal).   

Rowe’s reasoning was continued in 1988 in support of P1:

(P) No good state of affairs we know of is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being’s permitting E1 or E2. Therefore,

(Q) It is likely that no good state of affairs is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being in permitting E1 or E2. 8

This is a “noseeum” inference (the name comes from Stephen Wykstra who explains that in the Midwest we have “noseeums”-tiny flies which, while having a painful bite, are so small you “no see ‘urn.”). Noseeum inferences claim that because we do not see X, there probably is no X. 

However this is only successful on two conditions:

  1. If X was there, we would expect to see X
  2. We have sufficiently searched the terrain for X

There have been many objections to Rowe’s inference, including a response from William Alston. Below if a fictional discussion between Rowe and Alston related to the inference from P to Q.

Rowe: (P) No good state of affairs we know of is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being’s permitting E1 or E2. Therefore, (Q) It is likely that no good state of affairs is such that an omnipotent, omniscient being’s obtaining it would morally justify that being in permitting E1 or E2.

Alston: How do you infer Q from P?

Rowe: Well if there are goods justifying God’s permission of horrendous evil, it is likely that we would discern or be cognizant of such goods. The fact that we don’t, means there probably aren’t any.

Alston: Nonsense! We are in no state to cognize all God’s reasons. We should be agnostic on the issue. 

Rowe: OK I grant you that. Being finite beings we can’t expect to know all the goods God would know, any more than an amateur at chess should expect to know all the reasons for a particular move that Kasparov makes in a game. 

Alston: So glad we agree.

Rowe: Wait, that’s not the end. Unlike Kasparov who in a chess match has a good reason not to tell us how a particular move fits into his plan to win the game, God, if he exists, isn’t playing chess with our lives. In fact, since understanding the goods for the sake of which he permits terrible evils to befall us would itself enable us to better bear our suffering, God has a strong reason to help us understand those goods and how they require his permission of the terrible evils that befall us.

Alston: And how do you propose that God would help us finite beings understand those goods?

Rowe: Well if God can’t allow us to understand the reasons (for whatever reason), then we would expect God to at least make his love and presence more evident to us, which could confirm that there are reasons even though we cant see them.

Alston: Many claim that he does make his love and presence evident to us, he does it all the time, maybe not to everyone, but we can’t be justified in saying God doesn’t have sufficient reasons not to do it any more than he already does. 

Rowe: I disagree, I think we are indeed justified in saying God doesn’t have sufficient reasons.  

Alston: And what is this justification? 

Rowe: It’s the same type of justification we discussed earlier, our justification is that we can’t find any such good reasons despite searching high and low for them. So it’s likely there is no reason.

Alston: And why should we expect to see these reasons?

Rowe: Because if there was indeed a sufficient reason, it is likely that we would discern or be cognizant of such reasons.  

Alston: Nonsense again! We are in no state to cognize all God’s reasons, you agreed to that earlier when you said “Being finite beings we can’t expect to know all the goods God would know, any more than an amateur at chess should expect to know all the reasons for a particular move that Kasparov makes in a game”. That’s why we moved on. So as I said before, we should be agnostic on the issue, you simply can’t infer Q from P. 

In conclusion: We are rightly agnostic as to whether there exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse. Until we are given a good reason to believe this premise, the argument is not successful.

5. Intervention

Assertion: God seems to intervene in a way inconsistent with a loving God

This is the final and greatest question related to the evidential problem of evil. It may be the case that we are not justified in saying that there is too much evil etc, but we know of instances where God has intervened, so why not always intervene or at least a bit more?

When speaking about God’s intervention in the world, it is useful to look at it logically and objectively.

In general, it is acknowledged in Mormonism that:

  1. God would not want to intervene on all evil
  2. God does intervene on some evil

Related to the first point, ​Blake Ostler said:

If God intervened every time someone were about to bring about a genuine evil, then he would frustrate his purposes for us. For example, if knives were steel-hard when spreading butter but suddenly turned to rubber whenever a person wanted to use a knife to stab another person, the order necessary for God’s plan to be accomplished would be frustrated. There would not even be the possibility of morally significant free actions in such an environment.

If God were to act on this principle in every case of incipient wrongdoing, the situation would be materially changed. Human agents would no longer have a real choice between good and evil, and the surpassing worth that attaches to having such a choice would be lost. 9

And related to the second point, LDS scriptures contain accounts of God believed to be intervening such as one of the Lamanite robbers dropping dead in Alma 19:22

Now, one of them, whose brother had been slain with the sword of Ammon, being exceedingly angry with Ammon, drew his sword and went forth that he might let it fall upon Ammon, to slay him; and as he lifted the sword to smite him, behold, he fell dead.

So in Mormon thought there needs to be some kind of line or some kind of middle ground that God works in. The question is whether we are justified in thinking that God acts in an unloving manner when intervening?

We could ask why God intervenes to help a 5 year old find her lost toy but not intervene to help a terrible natural event. However this is precisely what we should expect to see. In order to understand this, imagine scoring all the pain/suffering in the world from 1 million (terrible suffering) down to 1 (the simple things like lost toys). Then arranging in an orderly fashion all the high scorers on the left and low scorers on the right. Now the question can be rephrased “Why does God help out a 10-score-suffering but doesn’t help someone in a 500,000-score-suffering?”.

Having established above that God does intervene/help, then God’s options are either:

  1. Start helping with the terrible sufferings and intervene only down to a certain point we shall call X
  2. Help out anywhere along the scale as and when you see fit

In our experience, we see option 2 and that’s exactly what we would expect to see. We wouldn’t ever expect to see option 1 because as mentioned above, we wouldn’t even notice if only terrible evils were being eliminated, it would simply appear as if God is doing nothing at all. Also God does not need to go for option 1 like someone with finite resources may morally be obliged to. God has infinite resources, he doesn’t need to start from the left and work his way down to X then stop. Option 1 would also discriminate against people who never experience terrible sufferings. Therefore we would only ever expect to see option 2 and therefore would expect a God who helps children find lost toys.

For individual evils, are we in a good position to say that God should have intervened but didn’t? Alston notes that we are in a poor position to say God has ever chosen wrong. This applies equally well for the claim that the distribution of evil is so random it’s better explained by no God. In the same way a child may not understand the reason for suffering pain when being injected against immunisation, we may not understand the greater good in an eternal perspective with our current understanding.

However it must be realised that not being justified in thinking God does not have morally sufficient reasons, does not necessarily mean we are justified in thinking that God does have morally sufficient reasons. 

Alston argues that the following make our ability to make judgements difficult:

1. Lack of data. This includes, inter alia, the secrets of the human heart, the detailed constitution and structure of the universe, and the remote past and future, including the afterlife if any.

2. Complexity greater than we can handle. Most notably there is the difficulty of holding enormous complexes of fact-different possible worlds or different systems of natural law-together in the mind sufficiently for comparative evaluation.

3. Difficulty of determining what is metaphysically possible or necessary. Once we move beyond conceptual or semantic modalities (and even that is no piece of cake) it is notoriously difficult to find any sufficient basis for claims as to what is metaphysically possible, given the essential natures of things, the exact character of which is often obscure to us and virtually always controversial. This difficulty is many times multiplied when we are dealing with total possible worlds or total systems of natural order.

4. Ignorance of the full range of possibilities. This is always crippling when we are trying to establish negative conclusions. If we don’t know whether or not there are possibilities beyond the ones we have thought of, we are in a very bad position to show that there can be no divine reasons for permitting evil.

5. Ignorance of the full range of values. When it’s a question of whether some good is related to E in such a way as to justify God in permitting E, we are, for the reason mentioned in 4., in a very poor position to answer the question if we don’t know the extent to which there are modes of value beyond those of which we are aware. For in that case, so far as we can know, E may be justified by virtue of its relation to one of those unknown goods.

6. Limits to our capacity to make well considered value judgments. The chief example of this we have noted is the difficulty in making comparative evaluations of large complex wholes 10

One criticism of this reasoning is that if we are to be skeptical of our ability to understand the true moral effects of God’s decisions (i.e. not being able to identify why God’s non-intervention may be good), then that calls into question our own ability to make moral choices. However moral obligations are relative to circumstance and understanding. For example, we would consider it a moral decision for Person A to push Person B out the way of a bicycle if Person A didn’t know it would put them in the path of an oncoming train. Yet we would not consider it moral for Person A to push Person B in the same situation if Person A knew of the oncoming train. 

We do not need to justify the position that God does have sufficient reasons not to intervene on specific occasions, the burden of proof is on the argument that God does not have sufficient reason. Until that proposition is shown to be true, we are agnostic to it and the problem of evil fails fails as an argument.

Conclusion

The logical problem of evil is generally agreed to be unsuccessful and the evidential problem, while difficult to swallow (seeing such evils in the world) does not give us good grounds for disbelieving that God exists or is good. For many believers, there is good reason to believe that God is good/compassionate, perhaps through personal experience or rational arguments and in the absence of a reason to think he is not good, are rational to maintain their belief.

Terryl Givens said:

One comfort is to be found in a God whose power is in His magmanimity as well as His wisdom. These two traits mean that His divine energies are spent not in precluding chaos but in reordering it, not in preventing suffering but in alchemizing it, not in disallowing error, but in transmuting it into goodness. 11

  1. See https://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressreleases/2013-01-19/annual-income-richest-100-people-enough-end-global-poverty-four[]
  2. Dialogue Journal, Blake Ostler. 2015. Mormon Concept of God. [ONLINE] Available at:https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V17N02_67.pdf. [Accessed 21 November 15].[]
  3. See Plantinga, Alvin (1974). The Nature of Necessity. Oxford: Clarendon Press[]
  4. Mackie, J. L. 1982. The Miracle of Theism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.[]
  5. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love​​[]
  6. Blake Ostler and David Paulsen. Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil. [ONLINE] Available at: http://blakeostler.com/docs/JSmith&ProblemofEvil.pdf. [Accessed 13 June 2017].[]
  7. Rowe, William L. 1979. “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism,” American Philosophical Quarterly 16: 335-41.[]
  8. Rowe, William L. 1988. “Evil and Theodicy,” Philosophical Topics 16: 119-32.[]
  9. Blake Ostler. Evil: A Real Problem for Evangelicals. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.fairmormon.org/reviews_of_the_new-mormon-challenge/evil-a-real-problem-for-evangelicals. [Accessed 5 December 2016].[]
  10. William Alston. 1991. The Inductive Argument From Evil and the Human Cognitive Condition. [ONLINE] Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c059/5a6cd84e892c7f8ce0a9e04d18d8b6484b7c.pdf. [Accessed 13 June 2017].[]
  11. Givens, T, 2014. The Crucible of Doubt. Deseret Book.[]