There is only a problem with the existence of evil if there is belief in God. An atheist with belief in a non created cosmos can define the problem of evil as a characteristic of the world that needs no further explanation. Similarly, a religion with belief in more than one God can explain the problem in terms of opposing good and evil gods. The theist, believing in God as the creator has to come to terms with the problem that there is evil in the world and if God is the infinite creator it must be God who created it.
The problem of evil is concerned with reconciling the omnipotence of God to his goodness. The problem only exists if God is perceived as being both good and omnipotent. The existence of evil can be explained by a good God who is not omnipotent as God would not will suffering but would be unable to prevent it.
The existence of evil can also be explained if God is omnipotent but not good as the suffering in the world could directly be attributed to the will of an evil deity.
Philosophers view the omnipotence of God with conflicting interpretations. Descartes in the Meditations claimed that God is capable of performing the logically impossible. God could act against the Law of Non Contradiction or even add up 2 + 3 to equal 4. This view would be strongly contested by followers of Thomas Aquinas who believe God's omnipotence is limited by the constraints of logic. Aquinas uses the example of the absurdity of God committing suicide to illustrate this. As God is beyond time it would be beyond possibility for him to stop existing.
A third perspective would be to claim that God transcends the human concepts of logic and existence. If we talk of God in terms of a being we are automatically constraining him by our own limited concepts. To say that God is capable of breaking the law of Non Contradiction is futile as we cannot imagine him being able to both open and close a door at the same time. However we would be wrong to take this limited concept of our cosmos based logic and apply it to God who by his very nature is beyond our understanding.
There are two fundamental types of evil:
1. Moral Evil
2. Metaphysical (or natural) Evil
Moral evil is the evil inflicted on human beings by each other. It comes into being through choices made by humans.
Metaphysical evil is derived from our experiences with the physical cosmos. An earthquake is a metaphysical evil as it has not been influenced by the actions of humanity.
The first major consideration in assessing the Problem of Evil is to ascertain whether evil actually exists in the world. In his book Summa Theologie, Thomas Aquinas presents good as being the fulfilling of a substance's intended being. Aquinas does not see evil as being a substance in itself “evil cannot be a thing, since God made it,” but rather as an absence of good which he believes comes directly from God. He defines evil as “The absence of good in something we would expect to have this good.” So, a human being without sight would be evil because it is not fulfilling the purpose of its nature. A human being without sight in the dark however would not be evil as it is not missing something expected in the human design. Aquinas advances this argument to say that as nothing could ever entirely fail to fulfil its nature nothing can ever be truly evil. This can most clearly be illustrated in the fact that to exist at all is good so anything that exists cannot wholly be evil.
Aquinas also advances the view that “If one opposing force is infinite, the other must be excluded absolutely.”On this basis, if we take God to be the infinite force of goodness it follows that evil cannot exist.
In the Summa Theologie, Aquinas delivers his belief that everything is designed to desire its own perfection for in doing so “Everything is desiring God himself, for the perfection of all things somehow resembles diving existence.”
This only considers the perfection in the general terms of the perfection of the nature of the substance. It does not allow for the fact that individuals exist within nature groups. In Genetics, scientists have found that the structure of our DNA is a determining fact in the preference of our individual natures. So, if my DNA is structured so as to give me a desire to eat coal, even though I am not fulfilling the nature of what it is to be a human I am fulfilling my individual nature.
Aquinas could argue that my DNA is defective and I am not a prototype human, so consequently I am unable to fulfil the perfection of what it is to be human. This argument entails the belief that God would have made a human incapable of acting in accordance with its own nature. To argue this, Aquinas would have to contradict his theory that everything is designed to desire its own perfection as a God who designed humans to seek something they could not achieve would not be consistent with the theistic belief that God is good.
Swinburne believes that, due to the need for regulated physical laws there will always be “victims of the system.” Metaphysical evil occurs as a consequence of these natural laws and is therefore unavoidable.
In the Dialogues of Natural Religion, Hume writes that “The observance of general laws, or some such reason is the sole cause which controlled the power and benevolence of Jupiter.” This is a suggestion that God was restricted by the matter he was working with. Our knowledge of Geography which tells us that our world could not exist without the movement of tectonic plates, the cause of earthquakes, illustrates this. If it was not logically possible for God to create a world without tectonic plate movement he has no moral blame for this metaphysical evil. This argument is flawed in the sense that it limits God's power, although to follow the interpretation of God given by Aquinas, the constraints of a logical impossibility do not limit the power of God.
Although we could accept that an infinite God working with limited matter may create natural laws with negative consequences to some extent, it is unlikely that an infinite God would be as limited as the metaphysical evil in the world suggests. The extremity of the natural laws suggests these not to be design faults but deliberate creations.
Philo in the Dialogues claims “A being who knows all the secret springs of the Universe might turn all accidents to the good of mankind and render the whole world happy.” Omniscient God knows the secret springs and by nature of his omnipotence is able to change the cosmos. The fact the he has chosen not to is an indication that metaphysical evil is an integral part of his creation.
Swinburne would say metaphysical evil exists to perform the function of teaching humanity about evil as “humans need to understand evil in order to reject it.”
In order to overcome the problem of natural laws and Swinburne's “victims of the system,” Philo suggests God could “conduct everything by particular volitions.” This would produce a world in which the laws of nature would frequently be broken. There would be no consistency in the cosmos and humans would have no need to judge the consequences of their actions as any negative consequences would be superceded by divine intervention.
Philo's world of particular volitions would also have a detrimental effect on the relationship between humans and God. Humans would be turning to God as a plea for intervention and not out of genuine love for him.
In order to remove the blame for natural evil from God completely, philosophers and theologians, in particular St. Augustine who claimed that evil was ascribable to “non human beings,” have tried to lay blame at the door of the Devil.
The main objection to this is namely that we consider man to be the highest point of God's hierarchy so by implication the Devil must be a lesser being. If man is unable to create natural laws it is unlikely that lesser beings than man would have this power. This objection is not sufficient to dismiss the Devil completely as lesser beings than man have the power to fly or breathe under water. It is not logically impossible the the Devil could not affect the natural laws.
If we take the Devil to be infinitely evil, Aquinas would be committed to denying the Devil's existence as he claims that as any creation of God must be good a creation of infinite evil could not come into being. Aquinas' argument: “If one opposing force is infinite, the other must be excluded absolutely,” also refutes the idea of the Devil. We know God to be infinitely good so we are obliged to discount the Devil on this basis and seek an explanation for natural evil elsewhere. Modern theology which has dismissed belief in the Devil would also be inclined to seek an alternative explanation for metaphysical evil.
Aquinas claims that natural evils are only perceived by humans to be evil and from the perspective of God are just natural results of his creation. This argument rests on the fact that humans see God as a moral agent capable of making moral choices. Many philosophers would argue that if God is a moral agent and there is still evil in existence he is a failing moral agent.
The first possible objection is that God is a moral agent but allows metaphysical evil into the creation in order to fulfil the nature of the cosmos as a whole. Evil could be a necessity in the sense that through suffering humans become more developed spiritually and more able to forge a relationship with God and attain happiness in the afterlife. God cannot be a failing moral agent if evil is a necessary means of achieving eventual happiness.
This argument is similar to the Porch argument raised by Hume in his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. He presents a metaphorical analogy that this world is a porch leading to the main building where eventual happiness is achieved. Hume dismisses this argument on the basis that there is no evidence to prove this is the case. Hume states that as there is no distributive justice in this world we have no reason to assume that there will be a further world in which justice is distributed fairly.
In arguing that this world is a stepping stone to a better afterlife we are aligning the omnipotence and goodness of God as we are seeing God as willing the eventual happiness of humanity. The fact that humans suffer along the road to happiness is irrelevant in the argument as it is a necessary component of eventual happiness.
This provides an answer to the logical dilemma raised by David Hume:
“God's power is infinite
But neither man, nor animal is happy
Therefore he does not will their happiness.”
Hume's argument is not logically sound as the second premise and the conclusion are set in a different time frame. The fact that man and animals are not happy now cannot be used to prove logically that God does not desire their eventual happiness.
Hume's argument also fails because it is a contentious statement that “Neither man nor animal is happy.” Hume is oversimplifying the situation of the cosmos with this claim. His argument could equally be reworked to state:
God's power is infinite
Happiness always exists in the world
Therefore God wills the happiness of humanity.
Both this argument and Hume's are equally fallacious as the second premise in both is incorrect. Neither argument makes mention of the fact that at any given time both happiness and misery exist in the world. Hume is basing his conclusion on a false premise so the logic of his argument fails.
To argue that God could have eliminated the 'porch' and solely created what we perceive to be the afterlife would be futile as without the suffering of the first world we are not spiritually mature enough to relate to God. If God had given us this spiritual maturity from the beginning we would be turning to God because we were programmed to do so and not because of genuine love for God. In such a world we would be no better than robots.
The second main objection to seeing God as a failing moral agent is to deny that he is a moral agent at all. Aquinas states that “Since God is literally timeless, God has no potential.” This is a development of the Doctrine of Divine Simplicity which states “God is what God does.” This avoids the problem of seeing God as a moral agent making choices about what to do. On this view God is actuality itself. If God does not make choices, he does not make moral decisions so God is essentially amoral.
Philosophers disagree about whether God could have created another world if he had so chosen. Aquinas who speaks of God lacking potential holds the belief that God could not have made choices about which world to create. If this is the case, God's goodness and omnipotence are both intact and we cannot look to God as a source of evil as God is fulfilling the nature of his existence perfectly by creating the world that it is his nature to create.
Hume sees the limitations of the world as an indication that God is limited. His Inference Problem is that we can only know God through his creation so the fact that his creation shows signs of limitation must lead us to the belief that God himself is limited. Philo in the Dialogues makes the claim that the image of God we can infer from the physical world can be either good or all powerful but not both.
A challenge to Hume's argument would be to argue that the products of the creator are not an indication of the nature of the creator. If I was an excellent seamstress and had produced many well made garments during my career but one day made an inferior skirt and a person inferred from this single garment that I was a bad seamstress this would not be a correct inference. In order to make a true inference about my ability, the person would need to see a broader sample of my work. This same argument can be applied to Hume's Inference Problem. We do not know if God has created other worlds and achieved perfection in them, nor do we know if what we as humans perceive to be limitations are actually constituents of the perfect cosmos.
Following the arguments of Swinburne, God could have chosen to make any one of an infinite range of worlds and chose to make this one. Swinburne believes that this is not the best of all possible worlds and even if it was “God would be under no obligation to create it.” This argument is based on the belief that God, being the creator of the world, has more rights than the products of his creation. If God has the right by nature of the fact that he is the creator to make humanity suffer then this is not an immoral action.
Hume is in agreement with Swinburne that this is not the best of all possible worlds. The evidence he gives for this is that we can imagine how the world could be improved and even improve it ourselves.
We can imagine only with regard to the immediate good. For example, I may be able to prevent a small child from witnessing death, but my action, although and immediate good could be bad in the long term sense that the child would have been changed by the experience to the extent where they were inspired to do good deeds in the world. Our human imaginations are not sufficient to imagine the intentions of God.
Swinburne states that “God has no obligation to non existant things.” He means this in the sense that God has no obligation to create a better world than the one in which we live because before there was any creation there were no beings for which God held responsibility. This is an extreme position to take. Surely I have a moral obligation even before conceiving my child to ensure I can feed and shelter it. The obligation begins at a point before the being comes into existence. To apply this to God, surely the obligation toward his creation began when he decided to create.
Even if we can mitigate moral blame from God's decision to create this world and absolve him from the blame of metaphysical evil either with Swinburne's necessity for human suffering or Hume's theory of God working with limited matter, many theologians feel the problem of evil still exists in the form of moral evil.
The intervention of God in this world is particularly relevant to the issue of moral evil. The main defence to the presence of moral evil in the cosmos is the free will defence. This is the defence that humans all have freedom to make their own choices and any bad consequences that arise from these free choices are the responsibility of the agent and not God. So, if I choose to torture someone, it is wrong to blame God for my evil action as I could equally have chosen not to do it.
There are two ways in which to look at the free will defence. The first perspective is to see the cosmos as a finished creation in which God has passed over to humanity to rule. From this viewpoint any intervention from God would be immoral as to intervene would break God's promise to let humanity rule itself.
A good response to this argument would be to say that God intervening in individual cases of suffering is not an infringement on free will. To prevent an ill man dying of cancer would not take away his freedom, particularly as the man is not choosing whether or not to die. But to intervene in a situation where a person was attempting suicide would be an paternalistic infringement of his will. Divine intervention would be a direct conflict with human rights, the boundaries between what does and what does not infringe upon human rights causing great discrepancy.
A weak argument might suggest that God could choose to act in one case and not another, in, for example, the case of the man dying of cancer. This does not take into account the fact that God loves all members of his creation equally and would not intervene to help some and not others. To intervene in just one case would be giving a certain individual or group of people a priority. A good God would not value one group of people over another. With one act of intervention, God would be committed to others. This would lead to the situation mentioned earlier where God would be committed to conducting everything by Philo's “particular volitions.”
Free will must be considered in relation to humanity as a whole and not to individuals. If we see free will as something God has bestowed on humanity, to intervene in the world even in one individual case would be a betrayal of all of human kind.
The second perspective that can be argued is that God must retain some responsibility for the cosmos because he is the creator and in cases of extreme human evil must take it upon himself to protect his creation.
The free will defence aligns omnipotence with God's goodness because it allows for the fact that God could intervene in the world but chooses not to. God is by nature perfect and therefore his decision to give humanity free will was the perfect decision. It follows from this that God cannot intervene in the world even in the pursuit of preventing evil as it would conflict with the perfectness of his nature as an implication that he was wrong to bestow free will on humanity.
Free will is necessary to humanity if it is to turn God from desire rather than obligation. If human choices were preordained by God there would be no reflection of God in the cosmos. The greatness of God is reflected by the fact that humanity with its free will chooses to turn to him.
Free will must take into consideration the fact that God is omniscient and knew in advance of the creation the choices that humanity would make. Knowing the evil that would result from these choices, God still chose to give humans free will. This indirectly makes God responsible for creating the suffering as to not give humanity free will would have been to eliminate the sufferings induced by moral evil.
When considering the defence of free will it is critical to consider whether free will can actually exist. An omnipotent God would be capable of creating a deterministic cosmos in which all human choices were predetermined. If humanity has no free will but makes predetermined choices and those choices are evil this is evidence that God himself is not good as he is directly causing humans to inflict suffering. In a deterministic cosmos it is harder to mitigate God's responsibility as he has planned all the moral evil in the world.
“If God has planned from eternity the evils of the world that is the deepest evil.” (D.Z. Philips)
The only possible way to align the fact that God has deliberately chosen there to be suffering in the world with the fact that he is good is to show that all the evil in the world is justifiable and necessary to humanity. This is the essential problem of evil. Many theologians and philosophers agree that a percentage of evil in the word is justifiable but do not believe that all evil in the world is necessary.
The evils of the world can be justified by a comparison to the alternative. A world in which we were not free to inflict suffering upon one another would be a world in which we had no freedom. Surely a free world even with moral human atrocities such as the Holocaust is preferable to a world in which we are nothing but robots?
J.S. Mill's Utilitarianism could justify suffering if the eventual happiness outweighed the suffering. A logical development of this argument is that the happiness of the afterlife will last for infinity whereas the miser of the cosmos will only last for approximately the biblical “three score years and ten,” so the amount of suffering humans endure in the first world is considerably outweighed by the pleasure of the next world.
Mill could also justify suffering in the world if the happiness produced to some people by the suffering of others was more substantial than their suffering.
It is clear that the approach Utilitarianism takes to the problem of evil does not provide a satisfactory answer. A God who believed in Utilitarian principles and for example allowed the Titanic to sink and claim many lives so an enterprising museum could raise it up and make profit from sightseers of the wreck is clearly immoral. The immorality still exists even if the pleasure of the museum making vast profits was greater than the suffering of those who lost relatives.
John Hick believes “The existence of evil is necessary for the perfect development of human beings.” By inflicting evil upon each other and having evil inflicted upon us our souls develop enough to have a spiritual relationship with God. The existence of moral evil in the world does not reflect the evil nature of God but rather the necessity of suffering in the physical world for happiness in the afterlife.
Hume suggests that the cosmos should operate on “pursuit of pleasure,” instead of pain. Hick replies to this “We describe the unpleasant as a lower degree of the pleasant.” So even if God removed all the unpleasant things in the world and left us to strive for the pleasant things, there would still be a hierarchy of pleasure as things we find pleasant now would become unpleasant. On this view it would be logically impossible to create a world with no suffering in it as some experiences are always going to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of pleasures.
If Hume, as J.C.Gaskin suggests, is actually seeing “dimunition of pleasure,” as an alternative to actual pain this would seem to be an idea of a more perfect cosmos. Swinburne would argue, saying Hume was asking for a “toy world.” This does not address the idea that suffering is necessary in the world. It is a moot point that dimunition of pleasure amounts to suffering, but Hume fails to consider that if dimunition of pleasure was a satisfactory alternative to pain, surely an omniscient God would have thought of it!
If God attempted to limit suffering in the world and, for example, removed the ability to torture from all humans, another evil action would take the place of torture as being the most extreme form of suffering. This would lead to a problem of regress where no matter how much evil God took from the world humans would still suffer as the things we do not consider to be evil now would soon become atrocities. It is perfectly plausible that God chose not to create a world with much more terrible atrocities than humans of this world can imagine. Humans can only appreciate the problem from the perspective of how much we suffer. When we ask why God lets us suffer so much perhaps we should ask instead “How much suffering have we been spared?”
Leibniz takes a different starting point to his argument and says that God is by nature perfect abd this is the world he created “ This must be the best of all possible worlds.” This is consistent with Aquinas' claim that God cannot do the logically impossible. It may be fundamentally necessary to suffer before reaching spiritual perfection and God was working within the limitations of this when he created the physical world.
Even if we can attribute a percentage of the suffering in the world to Hick's soul making, many would argue that it is difficult to reconcile the vast amounts of suffering with the goodness of God. In particular it is hard to see how genocide and other evils on a massive scale can be merely categorised as soul making. The argument can either follow the line that the death of so many people cannot justify any amount of soul making or the line that such events cause too much suffering to a section of humanity and none to others.
In objecting to this it is necessary to see genocide as something that affects people, who are not directly involved. Anybody who has heard or read about the Holocaust has suffered to the small extent that they have encountered a true example of real human evil. It could be argued that horror on such a massive scale is necessary if it is to both reach all of humanity and deliver the impat it does. Humans not directly connected to the Holocaust are being introduced to evil by example and therefore by allowing these terrible examples to occur, God is limiting the necessary for suffering on an individual scale, thus limiting suffering in the world. If we believe the premise that some suffering (in the form of awareness of evil) is necessary this aligns suffering with the goodness of God.
If we believe that suffering is good because it is a necessity of human development, then it follows that suffering can only be justified if people are aware of it. If a tramp with no relatives, friends or acquaintances died of cold and starvation in the middle of a wood and his body was never discovered, this is an example of suffering where there are no people to develop better souls by witnessing this suffering. It is perfectly plausible for a theist to claim that suffering is for the sake of the soul of the tramp in order to have spiritual perfection in the afterlife. But if we compare the suffering of this long painful death to the death of an elderly person who dies painlessly in their sleep, we must ask why is it necessary for one person to suffer more than the other?
This imbalance in suffering is a difficulty but can partially be answered by the free will defence, namely that we choose the way in which we live our lives and consequently this has an effect on how much suffering we receive. So it is not God making us suffer it is a result of the free actions we choose to make.
This argument is dangerous as it basically amounts to saying that we reap from life what we sow. It may not be due to the tramp's free will that he has nowhere to die except a wood. Free will does not answer the imbalance of suffering entirely.
An objection raised to justify suffering is punishment for our human wrongs. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Corinthians 1:21) This argument must be considered in terms of the free will and determinism problem. If we do not have free will, then the suffering in the world cannot be a punishment because God would be punishing us for doing something he has created us to do. Even if we do have free will, God is not in a position to punish us because he has given us the freedom to choose what we will do, with full knowledge of the choices we will make and the actions we will perform. To humanity, punishment would constitute intervention, discussed earlier in the free will defence as a non viable option to God.
The problem of evil is beyond the intellectual comprehension of humans. This is partly because we as humans cannot know the nature of God and are applying human terms such as “good” to God in comparison to the “evil” in the world. This is wrong because God is good in a sense that transcends human concepts.
We are unable to find an answer to the problem of evil because we can only view the world from the limited perspective of our cosmos and are unable to see the whole picture. To reconcile the evil in the world with the goodness of the infinite creator we would have to understand God's own justification for evil and any human attempt to understand God is by the very nature of our being, destined to be futile.