Anyone who believes in an all-powerful, loving God has to explain why there is such widespread misery and suffering in the world. The Problem of Evil is, according to the 18th century atheist David Hume, "the rock of atheism". The Problem of Evil can be set out as a philosophical argument:
J L Mackie finds another way of expressing the Problem of Evil in his paper Evil and Omnipotence. He calls it the INCONSISTENT TRIAD. Notice how each corner of the triangle contains a proposition that religious believers say is essential to their faith (God's omnipotence or goodness) or which it is difficult to deny (evil exists). The truth of any two corners of the triangle automatically entails the falsehood of the third corner. Mackie argues: "A good omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and the propositions that a good omnipotent thing exists and that evil exists are incompatible".
Arguments that try to explain why God causes or creates evil and suffering are called THEODICIES. The word "theodicy" is quite new (it was first used by Gottfried Leibniz in 1709) but almost all religions produce theodicies - often rather simplistic ones. For example, when Oedipus the King of Thebes unwitingly murders his father and marries his own mother, the gods send a plague to ravage the city. Many pagan religions explained natural disasters as the gods punishing humans for their crimes. The theodicies developed by thinkers of the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have tended to be much more complex. In the Bible, the Book of Job tells the story of a righteous man who suffers terrible hardships. The story presents several different theodicies, all of which Job finds unsatisfactory. The author of the Book of Job doesn't solve the Problem of Evil, instead showing God to be beyond mere human ideas about right and wrong. However, other thinkers have presented more philosophical theodices. For example:
Augustine of Hippo lived through the early 5th century and witnessed the end of Roman Empire in the West. In his lifetime, society was weakened by corruption and civil war then shattered by barbarian invasions, which led to the sack of
Point 1: Unlike Irenaeus, Augustine sets about considering the origin of evil. “Evil” is not a positive force but a “privation” or absence of Goodness – it’s what happens when creatures fall short of the good that God intended for them. In the same way that "black" is not a colour itself, but rather what you get in the ABSENCE of colour, so "evil" is not a thing or a force, but rather the absence of kindness, courage or wellbeing. This is important because Augustine argues that the world was CREATED to be wholly good, but has fallen short of this since then. In other words, evil does NOT come from God but arises when God's creations fail to live up to the standards God expects of them.
Point 2: The world is now imperfect because it has been corrupted (a) by humans themselves and (b) by other spirits (fallen angels). Notice that Augustine clearly lays the blame for evil, not at the feet of God, but at the feet of God's creatures. Right enough, probably 90% of the suffering on the planet is brought about by human foolishness, selfishness and cruelty. Even droughts and famines would be minor troubles if governments were less corrupt and spent their money on aid and healthcare rather than wars and bribery. However, there are still volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis that cause a lot of devastation and aren't triggered by anything humans do. Augustine lays the blame for this with the fallen angels - spirits who have also fallen short of the goodness God intended for them and now use their powers for mischief.
Where do these corrupted creatures come from? Augustine argues it is an abuse of FREE WILL. God gives creatures the choice to love and obey Him, or to turn against Him and live only for themselves. Certain angels have turned against God and, Augustine believes, the whole human race has done so too.
Point 3: The corruption of human beings happened to our remote ancestors (Adam & Eve, according to the Book of Genesis) and is passed on down the generations through the sexual act as ORIGINAL SIN. In other words, the whole human race is a corrupted, imperfect species, quite different from the good humans that God created in the Garden of Eden. Sinfulness is passed on from parent to child like a virus or a genetic mutation, which is why cruelty and selfishness comes so easily to humans but compassion and kindness is such a struggle.
So why doesn’t God fix it? Augustine focuses on God’s JUSTICE which cannot ignore sin and pretend it never happened – but his MERCY will recompense human beings for their sufferings in Heaven if they accept the Christian faith. Put simply, Augustine says that it is precisely BECAUSE God is Good that He must insist we are punished for our wicked behaviour and won't just perform a miracle to return the whole human race to its unfallen, good state.
This theodicy has been very popular and has influenced the teachings of many Christian Churches. However, many people today find it unconvincing. Critics attack the idea of blaming human beings for the crimes of their ancestors - this is not considered ethical any more. Augustine lived in a world with slavery, where people routinely suffered for the crimes of their ancestors, and hereditary aristocrats, who had all sorts of privileges because of the victories of their ancestors. No one questioned this sort of arrangement 1500 years ago but modern society is more INDIVIDUALISTIC and modern ethics focus on PERSONAL responsibility.
Similarly, Augustine lived in a collapsing society where JUSTICE would have seemed the most important of God’s qualities. Many modern religious believers prefer to focus on God's mercy and lovingkindness. The God Augustine describes may be good, but He also seems excessively strict and unbending, almost to the point of being cruel.
Augustine had no problem with taking the Genesis story literally and he believed in spirits (as did almost everybody else in his time). Today, many religious believers treat the Genesis story as a myth or fable and regard the devil as purely symbolic. Taking Genesis literally also bring's Augustine's Theodicy into conflict with modern science, because Darwin's theory of Natural Selection shows that human beings evolved from ape-like ancestors who were more primitive and irrational than us rather than more reasonable and good. The existence of spirits cannot be proved or disproved by science, but many phenomenon that used to be explained as the action of spirits (storms, diseases, mental illness, for example) are now explained satisfactorily with science. Science also explains why volcanoes erupt or earthquakes happen without needing to appeal to spirits. OCCAM'S RAZOR teaches that "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" and introducing magical gardens and evil spirits seems to be multiplying hypotheses. Occam's Razor can also be used to criticise the idea of Original Sin - this state cannot be explained scientifically, although science has identified many illnesses and genetic influences that are passed on through reproduction. If Original Sin is some sort of spiritual state or taint undetectable to science, then Augustine is again multiplying his hypotheses and weakening his overall argument.
Irenaeus was the Bishop of Lyons in the late 2nd century. He was one of the first Christian writers to defend Christian ideas and set out what books ought to be considered Holy Scripture. Unlike Augustine, Irenaeus was living in a successful and safe
Point 1: Like Augustine, Irenaeus goes back to the Book of Genesis, but instead of the Fall of Mankind, he is more interested in the creation of mankind. The Bible says humans are created “in God’s image” but Irenaeus points out they are not yet “in God’s likeness” – to become “like” God requires struggle and effort. Look at it this way: all human beings are "in God's image" because they are rational, can tell right from wrong, can choose and love and understand things. This means that Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate and the Emperor Nero were all "in the image of God", but despite this they did terrible things. Being "in God's likeness" involves choosing to show love and compassion, forgive those who harm you and live selflessly. Because we are in the image of God, we have the option of becoming in the likeness of God, but it's not automatic. It's something we have to choose to do.
So for Irenaeus, life is a learning curve – learning to be like God (more wise, loving, brave, selfless, etc) so that, one day, we can be perfect moral and spiritual beings with God in Heaven. This view downplays the importance of the Fall of Man and Jesus' sacrificial death that were so central to Augustine's Theodicy.
Point 2: Suffering is a vital ingredient in learning to be like God – so you can overcome it or to make you have compassion for others.
Irenaeus is saying we need evil in order to be able to appreciate and practise goodness. Suffering gives us a chance to be brave, selfless and to forgive our enemies. Other people's suffering gives us a chance to go to their aid, to show compassion and generosity. The Bible seems to agree with this view, since St Paul says: "We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverence, character; and character, hope". Unlike Augustine, Irenaeus is happy to portray God as the author of evil and suffering - not that God necessarily sends pain and misery to human beings, but God created the world with the possibility of suffering in it, then stood back to let humans use their free will to decide how to handle things. This idea has been picked up by the Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne:
There are some problems with this. Is it really acceptable for God to torture people “for their own good” or is that the behaviour of a demented puppet master? Is having a "holy character" really worth the horrific price that some people have to pay? In his book The God Delusion, biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins (right) describes a TV debate between Swinburne and Professor Peter Atkins:
A different criticism is to ask whether suffering really has the effect of making people more virtuous or does it make them bitter and resentful? After all, many children who are bullied or abused go on to become bullies or abusers later. Couldn't an All-Wise God have found a way of making people more moral and spiritual that was less likely to backfire?
Point 3: Irenaeus believes suffering goes on after death – eventually everyone is perfected and joins God in Heaven. This is an important part of Irenaeus' argument because it's quite obvious that suffering is not equally distributed on Earth - some people suffer terribly while others get through life quite happily or else die young before they have a chance to experience evil in the world. Irenaeus views Heaven and Hell as places where people continue to learn and improve.
This idea of the Afterlife raises a number of questions. Wouldn't it have been simpler for God to give people longer lifespans, rather than an afterlife? In fact, why does the process have to take so long; couldn't God "speed it up" and reduce the amount of suffering involved? Finally, why do some people seem to develop a "holy character" WITHOUT suffering very much? And if suffering is so good for us, why do most religions tell us to go around reducing suffering by helping the homeless, the starving and the sick. Isn't being homeless, hungry and sick supposed to be good for them?
Nevertheless, Irenaeus' theodicy has some important insights into moral development and a very positive view of human beings who are capable of raising themselves to perfection. This theodicy doesn't clash with science or involve a belief in unprovable supernatural forces like fallen angels or original sin. However, his arguments have not been very influential in churches, because he downplays the importance of the Fall, makes Jesus into a great moral role model and little more, and suggests that everyone will eventually get saved - ideas that go against orthodox Christian teachings. Recently, a number of religious philosophers have picked up Irenaeus' ideas, notably John Hick.
The idea of freewill - that human beings should be free to choose how to act - is important for both the Augustinian and Irenaean Theodicies and has been developed into a theodicy of its own by modern religious philosophers like Richard Swinburne.
According to this view - and similar to Irenaeus - human beings need to make real choices that produce both good and evil. This might be because a loving God needs to create beings who can freely receive His love and perhaps love Him in return. A race of automata would not be able to do this. In order to become the sort of creatures who choose to do the morally good thing and who recognise God's love and decide to return it, human beings need to explore their environment, make mistakes and learn from them and grow in maturity and responsibility. In order to grow like this, human beings need two considerations:
Point 1: Swinburne argues that "if men are to have knowledge of the evil which will result from their actions or negligence, laws of nature must operate regularly: and that means there must be victims of the system." In order for us to make moral decisions, our environment must be predictable - hitting someone over the head with a stick must have consistent results, otherwise we wouldn't learn not to do it. But having consistent laws of physics means there's always the chance of falling branches landing on your head and consistent laws of biology mean such an accident can cause serious harm.
This is an ingenious way of looking at the evil and suffering. They are "built in" to the world as logically necessary and inescapable side effects of having an environment where creatures like ourselves can exercise freewill. Unlike Augustine, this theodicy is not imagining some earlier, pristine Earth where nothing bad ever happened, nor is it suggesting like Irenaeus that God deliberately places evil in the world to test us. Evil is simply the necessary precondition of our freedom. Swinburne argues that even death is necessary because if humans were immortal they would have infinite chances to get things right and no need to develop. Life has to be limited if people are to take their decisions seriously.
Of course, critics will question whether the world needs to be quite as dangerous and scary as it is. Couldn't we have a stable, predictable environment but one without, say, earthquakes, droughts and killer plagues? This is a difficult question to answer, because we can't be sure whether God could have created a safer planet for us to inhabit - it depends on how you view God's omnipotence. Perhaps future space exploration will turn up other inhabitable worlds and this will help us judge whether our Earth is above-averagely dangerous and difficult to live in. In the meantime, some Christians combine aspects of the Freewill Defence with Augustine's Theodicy, suggesting that God created a world with the potential for a certain amount of danger and suffering, but this has been massively increased by the destructive influence of the Fall.
Point 2: The Freewill Defence also means that God must hold back from intervening in our environment. Of course God could ensure that, every time you hit someone with a stick, the stick becomes soft as jelly, but reverts to being hard again when you need it for walking. Bullets fired in anger would evaporate into air and the air itself would refuse to carry the sonic vibrations of words formed into curses or insults. Again, this would deny humans the opportunity to make meaningful choices and live with consequences. Swinburne argues that God does not intervene even during excessive horrors, like the Holocaust, because:
John Hick points out in Evil and the God of Love that we cannot even argue that some evils are unacceptable, because then we start to slide down a 'scale of evil' until even the slightest discomforts become unbearable. For example, if we decide that cancer is too severe and God obliges by abolishing cancer, then what about heart disease? Say God gets rid of heart disease, well we're still left with the 'flu! Eventually, the most painful thing left in the world is a headache, but if that's the worst people can suffer, it too becomes a criticism of a loving God and must be abolished. Hick suggests we either demand a world with NO evil (which seems inconsistent with freewill) or accept that what we have now is the optimal amount of evil.
There are weaknesses with these arguments. The insistence on freewill would seem to contradict the whole idea of an interventionist God, making miracles impossible. This means that if God ever intervenes to save one person by a miracle, it raises the question of why He doesn't intervene more often. God is made to look arbitrary and unfair. Logically, you can't use the Freewill Defense to let God off the hook for evil and suffering, but continue to believe that God performs miracles for some people. Or to put it another way, the Freewill Defense only works if you believe in a non-interventionist God.
Secondly, freewill is a very important concept for people living in liberal democracies like Britain and the USA, but not everyone has the chance to exercise freewill. For example, some people are enslaved or oppressed or simply too poor to be able to make meaningful choices. How does suffering benefit them? A related criticism looks at the suffering of animals. Animal suffering is immense, partly through animals preying on each other, partly through human beings hunting or farming animals and partly through the same natural evils that afflict everything else on the planet - yet animals cannot make moral choices, accept responsibility or in any way benefit from suffering.
A final argument looks at the people who continue to reject moral behaviour, personal responsibility and the love of God - whether they suffer or not! Sometimes it seems that no amount of suffering will make bad people change their ways. Meanwhile, there are plenty of good people out there who never consider behaving wickedly, it just never crosses their mind to rape or steal or kill. Couldn't God have created everyone like that, a race of people who have freewill but in fact always freely choose God and morality over selfishness and cruelty? J.L. Mackie talks about "the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly [God's] failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good." Again, it isn't clear that what Mackie is asking of God is logically possible. If God knows we will always choose the good action, then our actions have been decided before we are created even if we believe we are acting freely.
There are no easy answers to the Problem of Evil, though the Freewill Defence perhaps comes closest to resolving it. Richard Swinburne sums up the dilemma in his book Is There a God?:
Philosophers often make a distinction between MORAL EVIL which results from humans (or other intelligent creatures, if they exist) being cruel and selfish, and NATURAL EVIL which results from the world being the way it is, full of diseases, lightning storms, earthquakes, tidal waves and falling trees. Most of the various Theodicies explain moral evil well enough but aren't quite so good at explaining natural evil. This might be because many religions and religious theodicies date from a time when people believed demons or spirits were behind storms, plagues, volcanic eruptions, etc., so they viewed these things as a type of moral evil too.
Natural evil can be justified to some extent because the potential for harm is "built in" to any world that operates according to fixed natural laws and it may be that humans need to live in a world like that in order to exercise their moral qualities (Irenaeus) or their freewill. It might even be that God or the Devil has deliberately made the world more chaotic and destructive as a way of punishing people for their sins (Augustine). The problem is not thatthe world has to have earthquakes or plagues or forest fires in it - it's why some of these disasters have to be so intense and cause so much suffering, usually for some of the world's poorest people.