Problem of evil  

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In the philosophy of religion and theology, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the existence of God. The problem follows with the belief that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent whilst at the same time evil exists. God either cannot stop evil or he will not. If he cannot then he is argued to not be omnipotent. If he will not then he is argued to not be omnibenevolent.

Responses include the arguments that evil is necessary for the existence of greater goods such as free will or spiritual growth, that we cannot understand God, that evil is merely the absence of good, or that it is an appropriate punishment.


Detailed arguments

Numerous different versions of the problem of evil have been formulated.

Logical problem of evil

One example among many of a formulation of the problem of evil is presented by Epicurus and may be schematized as follows:

  1. If a perfectly good god exists, then there is no evil in the world.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

This argument is of the logically valid form modus tollens (denying the consequent). In this case, P is "God exists" and Q is "there is no evil in the world".

Another version:

  1. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
  2. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
  6. Evil exists and evil does not exist.

Versions such as these are referred to as the logical problem of evil. They attempt to show that that the assumed propositions lead to a logical contradiction and cannot therefore all be correct. Most philosophical debate has focused on the propositions stating that God cannot exist with or would want to prevent all evils with a common response being that God can exist with and allow evil in order to achieve a greater good.

Many philosophers accept that arguments such as Plantinga's free will defense (in brief, that God allows evil in order to achieve the greater good of free will) are logically possible (which does not necessarily mean that the arguments are probable or plausible) and thus successfully solve the logical problem of evil. The debate has therefore tended to focus on the problem of evil as formulated in the next section.

Evidential problem of evil

The evidential version of the problem of evil (also referred to as the probabalistic or inductive version), seeks to show that the existence of evil, although logically consistent with the existence of God, counts against or lower the probability of the truth of theism.

A version by William L. Rowe:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. (Therefore) There does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Another by Paul Draper:

  1. Gratuitous evils exist.
  2. The hypothesis of indifference, i.e., that if there are supernatural beings they are indifferent to gratuitous evils, is a better explanation for (1) than theism.
  3. Therefore, evidence prefers that no god, as commonly understood by theists, exists.

These arguments are probability judgments since they rests on the claim that, even after careful reflection, we can see no good reason for God’s permission of evil. The inference from this claim to the judgment that there exists gratuitous evil is inductive in nature, and it is this inductive step that sets the evidential argument apart from the logical argument.

The logical possibility of hidden or unknown reasons for the existence of evil still exist. However, the existence of God is viewed as any large-scale hypothesis or explanatory theory which aims to make sense of some pertinent facts, and to the extent that it fails to do so it is disconfirmed. According to Occam's razor, one should make as few assumptions as possible. Hidden reasons are assumptions. Thus, as per Draper's argument above, the theory that there is an omniscient and omnipotent being who is indifferent requires no hidden reasons in order to explain evil. It is thus a simpler theory than one also requiring hidden reasons regarding evil in order to also have omnibenevolence. Similarly, for every hidden argument completely or partially justifying observed evils it is equally likely that there is an hidden argument actually making the observed evils worse than they appear without hidden arguments. As such, from a probabilistic viewpoint hidden arguments will neutralize one another.

A common response to the evidential argument is by claiming that we do can see plausible and not hidden reasons for God’s permission of evil. This is discussed in a later section.

Related arguments

If there is a belief in hell, possibly including eternal suffering, then the problem of hell is a particularly strong form of the problem of evil. If unbelief or incorrect beliefs or poor design are considered evils, then the argument from nonbelief, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from poor design are similar to the problem of evil. There are also various omnipotency paradoxes.

Defenses and theodicies

Responses to the problem of evil have sometimes been classified as defenses or theodicies. However, authors disagree on the exact definitions. Generally, a defense attempts to show that there is no logical incompatibility between the existence of evil and the existence of God. A defense need not argue that this is a probable or plausible explanation. Only that the defense is logically possible. A defense attempts to answer the logical problem of evil.

A theodicy (Template:IPAEng, from Greek θεός (theós, "god") and δίκη (díkē, "justice")), on the other hand, is a more ambitious attempt to provide a plausible justification for the existence of evil. A theodicy attempts to answer the evidential problem of evil. Richard Swinburne maintains that it does not make sense to assume there are greater goods, unless we know what they are, i.e., we have a successful theodicy.

As an example, some authors see arguments including demons or the fall of man as not logically impossible but not very plausible considering our knowledge about the world. Thus they are seen as defenses but not good theodicies.

Free will

The free will argument is as follows. God's creation of persons with morally significant free will is something of tremendous value. God could not eliminate evil and suffering without thereby eliminating the greater good of having created persons with free will and who can make moral choices.

Natural evils such as earthquakes and many diseases are sometimes seen as a problem for a free will argument since they seem to not be caused by free will decisions. Possible reasons for natural evils using a free will argument include that they are caused by the free will of supernatural beings such as demons (these beings are not so powerful as to limit God's omnipotency which is another possible solution discussed later), are caused by the original sin which in turn is caused by free will, are caused by natural laws that are argued must exist in this form for free will to exist, or allow through observation and copying humans to perform greater evils which makes moral decisions more significant.

For many evils such as murder, rape, or theft it appears that the free will and choice of the victim is diminished by the free will decisions of the offender. In some cases such as murdered very young children it appears that they never had any free will choices to make at all. A possible response is that a world with some free will is better than a world with no free will at all.

Another possible objection is that free will could exist without the degree of evil seen in this world. This could be accomplished by making humans inclined to make more or always make good moral decisions by making these feel more pleasurable, or if harmful choices were made God would for some or all of them prevent the harmful consequences from actually happening, or if harmful consequences occurred God would sometimes or always immediately punish such acts which would presumably diminish their frequency. A reply is that such a "toy world" would mean that free will has less or no real value. A response to this is by arguing that then it would be similarly wrong for humans to try to lessen the degree of evil which is a position few argue for.

The debate depends on the definitions of free will and determinism, which are deeply disputed concepts themselves, as well as their relation to one another. See also compatibilism and incompatibilism and predestination.

There is also a debate regarding free will and omniscience. The argument from free will argues that any conception of God that incorporates both properties is inherently contradictory. The argument is closely related to the issue of Theological Fatalism, which is about whether God's omniscience imply that humans have no free will.

While not affecting the validity of the free will argument itself this reasoning creates problems for other common religious beliefs. It implies that there can be no heaven unless its inhabitants have no free will and thus lose its tremendous value. If a heavenly existence is still more valuable than an earthly existence the earthly one seems unnecessary. Another problem is that an omnibenevolent God does not seem to have the tremendous value associated with free will since he can only do the most good thing.

Plantinga's free will defense


St Irenaeus and more recently John Hick has argued that evil and suffering is necessary for spiritual growth. This is often combined with the free will argument by arguing that such spiritual growth requires free will decisions. A problem with this is that many evils do not seem to promote this. Examples include painful deaths of very young, innocent children and animals. Others enjoy lives of ease and luxury where there is virtually nothing that challenges them to undergo moral growth.

Heaven and hell

One possible argument is that an eternity of bliss in heaven will more than compensate for any earthly sufferance. However, this does not answer why any evil at all is necessary. If there is also a belief in hell then there is also the problem of hell which is a variant of problem of evil.

Human cognitive limitations

One argument is that, due to human cognitive limitations, humans cannot expect to understand God or God's ultimate plan. (This is not the same as arguing for hidden or unknown arguments which may be understood if revealed or learned. Regarding hidden or unknown arguments see the section on the evidential problem of evil.) A counter-argument is that God could make it absolutely clear to and assure humanity that, even if these cannot be understood in detail, good reasons and a plan do exist. Here the problem of evil becomes similar to the argument from nonbelief.

Appeal to arguments for the existence of God

Assume that the evidential problem of evil is correct. No plausible greater good explaining the presence of evil is found. This, while not making the existence of such a greater good logically impossible, decreases the probability for the existence of such a greater good and God.

Lacking omnipotence or omnibenevolence

The problem of evil does not apply if God is not omnipotent and omnibenevolent.

Dystheism is the belief that God is not wholly good.

In polytheism the individual deities are usually not omnipotent or omnibenevolent. However, if one of the deities has these properties the problem of evil applies. Pantheism and panentheism may or may not have a problem of evil depending on how God is perceived. Belief systems where several deities are omnipotent would lead to logical contradictions.

Ditheistic belief systems (a kind of dualism) explain the problem of evil from the existence of two rival great, but not omnipotent, deities that work in polar opposition to each other. Examples of such belief systems include Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and possibly Gnosticism. The Devil in Islam and usually in Christianity is not seen as equal in power to God who is omnipotent. Thus the Devil could only exist if so allowed by God. The Devil, if so limited in power, can therefore by himself not explain the problem of evil.

Process theology and open theism are other positions that limits God's omnipotence and/or omniscience (as defined in traditional Christian theology).

The omnipotence paradoxes have some proposed solutions that involves reducing the "degree of ability" associated to the notion omnipotence. Greater good arguments also make such such assumptions since it is argued that God cannot do logically impossible things and the existence of the greater good, such as free will, without the existence of evil is argued to be logically impossible.

Definition of "evil" as an absence of good

The fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo maintained that evil was only privatio boni, or an absence of good, much like darkness is an absence of light. An evil thing can only be referred to as a negative form of a good thing, such as discord, injustice, and loss of life or of liberty. These are all defined in terms of a spectrum with its lowest absolute being zero good (injustice being the absolute lack of just decision or action). This is commonly called the Contrast Theodicy — that evil only exists as a "contrast" with good. However, the Contrast Theodicy doesn't completely solve the problem of evil, as even if the apparent existence of suffering and evil in the world are illusory, the question remains why God neglected to create those goods that are found to be lacking in the world. There are similar ideas in Neoplatonism and Jewish Kabbalah (see Tzimtzum) which see the world as consisting of several layers. Each layer is increasingly more removed from God and less perfect. The mathematical logician and member of the Baha'i Faith William Hatcher has made a similar argument using relational logic.

No best of all possible worlds

Assume that there is no best of all possible worlds. Then for every possible world, however good, there is a better one. Then it is argued that God cannot be criticized for not having created a better world since this critique would always apply.

One response is that, even if accepting the basic assumption that there is no best of all possible worlds, a value system which see all results except the best possible one as equally valuable is questionable. Another is by arguing from a deontological approach that the problem of evil does not depend on the claim that this world could be improved upon, or upon the claim that it is not the best of all possible worlds: it is that there are evils which it would be morally wrong for God to allow. That there might be better and better worlds without limit is simply irrelevant.

Evil is complementary to good

Concepts such as yin and yang argue that evil and good are complementary opposites within a greater whole. If one disappears, the other must disappear as well, leaving emptiness. However, this implies that God himself could not exist without and can never remove all evil. If God was the only thing existing before creating the rest of the world, then God must have been partially evil. If the amount evil and good are seen as constant, then trying to lessen the evil of the world is pointless.


Nondualism rejects the existence of dualistic concepts such as good/evil. As such God cannot be good.

Evil is an illusion

One possible argument is that evil and suffering is merely an illusion. But this does not explain why such an illusion is allowed to exist.

Evil is a test

Evil is sometimes seen as a test or trial for humans. However, this by itself does not explain why such a test exists. Also, an omnipotent God could always make human abilities or the test so that the test is always failed or passed. An omniscient God would know the results in advance.

"Evil" suggests an ethical law

Another response to this paradox argues that asserting "evil exists" would imply an ethical standard against which to define good and evil. See Argument from morality.


The problem of evil is often phrased "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Some religions answer that good people simply do not exist. For example, some forms of Christianity teach that all people are inherently sinful due to the fall of man and the original sin. A counterargument is that an omniscient God when he created the world would have predicted this and an omnipotent God could have prevented it. If arguing that the fall was due to free will then this becomes another example of the free will argument.

There are also beliefs that when people experience evils it is always because evils they themselves have done (see Karma and the just-world phenomenon) or their ancestors have done (see again the original sin). However, such beliefs do not answer why God allowed such evils and suffering in the first place.

General criticisms of all defenses and theodicies

Steven M. Cahn has argued that there exists a "problem of good" (or "Cacodaemony") which is a mirror image of the problem of evil. The problem is the same except for that omnibenevolence is replaced by omnimalevolence, greater good is replaced by greater evil, and so on. Cahn argued that all arguments, defenses, and theodicies regarding the problem of evil applies similarly to the problem of good.

An argument that has been raised against theodicies is that, if a theodicy were true, it is argued that it would completely nullify morality. If a theodicy were true, then all evil events, including human actions, can be somehow rationalized as permitted or affected by God, and therefore there can no longer be such a thing as "evil" values.

By religion

Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

The problem of evil takes at least four formulations in ancient Mesopotamian religious thought, as in the extant manuscripts of Ludlul bēl nēmeqi (I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom), Erra and Ishum, The Babylonian Theodicy, and The Dialogue of Pessimism. In this type of polytheistic context, the chaotic nature of the world implies multiple gods battling for control.

In ancient Egypt, it was thought the problem takes at least two formulations, as in the extant manuscripts of Dialogue of a Man with His Ba and The Eloquent Peasant. Due to the conception of Egyptian gods as being far removed, these two formulations of the problem focus heavily on the relation between evil and people; that is, moral evil.

The Bible

The Book of Job is one of the most widely known formulations of the problem of evil in Western thought. In it, Satan challenges God regarding his servant Job, claiming that Job only serves God for the blessings and protection that he receives from him. God allows Satan to plague Job and his family in a number of ways, with the limitation that Satan may not take Job's life (but his children are killed). Job discusses this with three friends and questions God regarding his suffering which he finds to be unjust. God responds in a speech and then more than restores Job's prior health, wealth, and gives him new children.

Bart D. Ehrman argues that different parts of the Bible gives different answers. One example is evil as punishment for sin or as a consequence of sin. Ehrman writes that this seems to be based on some notion of free will although this argument is never explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Another argument is that suffering ultimately achieves a greater good, possibly for persons other than the sufferer, that would not have been possible otherwise. The Book of Job offers two different answers: suffering is a test, and you will be rewarded later for passing it; another that God in his might chooses not to reveal his reasons. Ecclesiastes sees suffering as beyond human abilities to comprehend. Apocalyptic parts, including the New Testament, see suffering as due to cosmic evil forces, that God for mysterious reasons has given power over the world, but which will soon be defeated and things will be set right.

Later Jewish interpretations

An oral tradition exists in Judaism that God determined the time of the Messiah's coming by erecting a great set of scales. On one side, God placed the captive Messiah with the souls of dead laymen. On the other side, God placed sorrow, tears, and the souls of righteous martyrs. God then declared that the Messiah would appear on earth when the scale was balanced. According to this tradition, then, evil is necessary in the bringing of the world's redemption, as sufferings reside on the scale.

Traditional Christian interpretations

Augustine and Pelagius

The consequences of the original sin were debated by Pelagius and Augustine of Hippo. Pelagianism is the belief that original sin did not taint all of humanity and that mortal free will is capable of choosing good or evil without divine aid. Augustine's position, and ultimately that of much of Christianity, was that Adam and Eve had the power to change nature by bringing sin into the world, but that the advent of sin then limited mankind's power thereafter to evade the consequences without divine aid. Eastern Orthodox theology holds that one inherits the nature of sinfulness but not Adam and Eve's guilt for their sin which resulted in the fall.

Luther and Calvin

Both Luther and Calvin explained evil as a consequence of the fall of man and the original sin. However, due to the belief in predestination and omnipotence, the fall is part of God's plan. Ultimately humans may not be able to understand and explain this plan.

Contemporary Christian Interpretation

Mary Baker Eddy

Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of the Christian Science movement) regarded evil as an illusion. Consequently, she and her followers claim to have no philosophical problem with the concept of an almighty and wholly good deity. In regard to the question as to what caused or causes the illusion of evil, Christian Science responds that the question is meaningless, and furthermore that enquiring into the origin of the illusion of evil tends to reinforce it, since such an enquiry would strengthen the belief that evil is real. Mary Baker Eddy writes: "The notion that both evil and good are real is a delusion of material sense, which Science annihilates. Evil is nothing, no thing, mind, nor power."

Peter Kreeft

Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft provides several answers to the problem of evil and suffering, including that a) God may use short-term evils for long-range goods, b) God created the possibility of evil, but not the evil itself, and that free will was necessary for the highest good of real love. Kreeft says that being all-powerful doesn't mean being able to do what is logically contradictory, i.e., giving freedom with no potentiality for sin, c) God's own suffering and death on the cross brought about his supreme triumph over the devil, d) God uses suffering to bring about moral character, quoting apostle Paul in Romans 5, e) Suffering can bring people closer to God, and f) The ultimate "answer" to suffering is Jesus himself, who, more than any explanation, is our real need.


Gnosticism refers to several beliefs seeing evil as due to the world being created by an imperfect god, the demiurge and is contrasted with a superior entity. However, this by itself does not answer the problem of evil if the superior entity is omnipotent and omnibenevolent. Different gnostic beliefs may give varying answers such as denying omnipotence as in Manichaeism.


Template:Main article

In Hinduism, the problem of evil is present but does not exist per se as souls are eternal and not directly created by God. In Dvaita philosophy, jivas (souls) are eternally existent and hence not a creation of God ex nihilo (out of nothing). The souls are bound by beginningless avidya (ignorance) that cause a misidentification with products of nature (body, wealth, power) and hence suffering. In effect, Hinduism identifies avidya (ignorance) as the cause of evil and this ignorance itself is uncaused. Suffering from natural causes are explained as karmic results of previous births. See also Karma in Hinduism.Template:Fact

Moreover, even within the realm of avidya, "good" and "evil" are an individual's deeds and God dispenses the results of an individual's actions but has the power to mitigate suffering.Template:Fact

Non-dual Advaita mysticism answers the question of theodicy by maintaining that every seemingly separate person is in fact a thought, dream, or experience of God. God creates and becomes / experiences each creation, deliberately limiting itself to a specific identity in space and time to undergo a particular life experience. Therefore it is God who experiences every pain, suffers every indignity, dies every death, experiences the illusion of being each separate individual.Template:Fact


In Buddhism, there is no theistic "problem of evil" as Buddhism generally rejects the notion of a benevolent, omnipotent creator god, identifying such a notion as attachment to a false concept. For instance, in the BhTemplate:IASTridatta JTemplate:IASTtaka the Bodhisattva sings:

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why does he order such misfortune
And not create concord?
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance
And he such inequity and injustice create?
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Then an evil master is he, (O Aritta)
Knowing what's right did let wrong prevail!


Mutazilite view

In Islamic theology, the Mu'tazili school identified evil as something that stems from free will and human imperfection, arguing that if man's evil acts were from the will of God then punishment would be meaningless. Mu'tazilis do not deny suffering from non-human sources such as natural disasters, and explain this "apparent" evil through the Islamic doctrine of taklif - that life is a test for beings possessing free will.Template:Fact

Other views


Epicurus is generally credited with first expounding the problem of evil, and it is sometimes called "the Epicurean paradox" or "the riddle of Epicurus."

"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" — Epicurus, as quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief

Epicurus himself did not leave any written form of this argument. It can be found in Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and in Christian theologian Lactantius's Treatise on the Anger of God where Lactantius critiques the argument. Epicurus's argument as presented by Lactantius actually argues that a god that is all-powerful and all-good does not exist and that the gods are distant and uninvolved with man's concerns. The gods are neither our friends nor enemies.

David Hume

David Hume's formulation of the problem of evil in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

"Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"
"[Gods] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?"

Gottfried Leibniz

In his Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, the sceptic Pierre Bayle denied the goodness and omnipotence of God on account of the sufferings experienced in this earthly life. Gottfried Leibniz introduced the term theodicy in his 1710 work Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal ("Theodicic Essays on the Benevolence of God, the Free will of man, and the Origin of Evil") which was directed mainly against Bayle. He argued that this is the best of all possible worlds that God could have created.

Imitating the example of Leibniz, other philosophers also called their treatises on the problem of evil theodicies. Voltaire's popular novel Candide mocked Leibnizian optimism through the fictional tale of a naive youth.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant argued for sceptical theism. He claimed there is a reason all possible theodicies must fail: evil is a personal challenge to every human being and can be overcome only by faith. He wrote

We can understand the necessary limits of our reflections on the subjects which are beyond our reach. This can easily be demonstrated and will put an end once and for all to the trial.

Victor Cousin

Victor Cousin argued for a form of eclecticism to organize and develop philosophical thought. He believed that the Christian idea of God was very similar to the Platonic concept of "the Good," in that God represented the principle behind all other principles. Like the ideal of Good, Cousin also believed the ideal of Truth and of Beauty were analogous to the position of God, in that they were principles of principles. Using this way of framing the issue, Cousin stridently argued that different competing philosophical ideologies all had some claim on truth, as they all had arisen in defense of some truth. He however argued that there was a theodicy which united them, and that one should be free in quoting competing and sometimes contradictory ideologies in order to gain a greater understanding of truth through their reconciliation.

See also

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