Philosophy of Religion

Chapter  6. The Problem of Evil

Section 1.  Introduction

There is an argument that is advanced in order to prove that either there is no god at all or that the god of the western religions can not exist.


The Problem of Evil poses a philosophical threat to the design argument because it implies that the design of the cosmos and the designer of the cosmos are flawed. We can know they are flawed due to the preponderance of evil within the cosmos. 

What is the Problem of Evil?

The problem of evil is not that there is evil in the world.  The problem of evil is not there there is so much evil in the world.  The problem of evil is not that there is not a balance between good and evil in the world.  Well then, what is the problem of evil ?

Simply put it is this: how can there be a deity that is all good and all knowing and all powerful at the same time that evil exists? How can there be a caring and benevolent God when there exists evil in the world ? The Problem of Evil relates to what would appear to be a contradiction in the idea of the deity.  The deity is a being that is all good and all powerful and yet creates or allows or permits evil to exist.  It is something of a problem, something that needs to be explained or rectified.  It is a problem with the CONCEPT of the deity in the Western religions after Christianity overlays the Greek notions of the ideal onto the Hebrew deity: God.  One answer to this question is to say that human moral agents, not the deity or God, are the cause of the evil. The deity is not responsible for the moral evil and in some sense created a world in which it is better that there be moral evil than not to have moral evil or even the possibility of moral evil.  This answer is insufficient to solve the problem because every manner of defending it has failed over time to explain how a deity that is all perfect and in particular All Knowing and All Powerful and All Good would permit or allow or cause evil to exist.  How would a deity that knows the future be all good if the deity creates agents that cause evil and the deity created them knowing that they would create evil?

Some prefer to think of the problem as the Problem of Suffering rather than the Problem of Evil. How can you reconcile the existence of so much suffering with the existence of an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God; as deity that is reported to be all loving and all merciful? 

Maybe God knows about the suffering and would stop it but can not stop it - that would imply God is not omnipotent. Maybe God is able to stop the suffering and would want to but does not know about it - that would imply God is not omniscient. Maybe God knows about the suffering and is able to stop it but does not wish to assuage the pain - that would imply God is not omnibenevolent.  These options are explored by those in a tradition of thought known as Process Theology (see below).  In the very least, David Hume argues, the existence of evil does not justify a belief in a caring Creator.

 Here is a good Overview of this Problem of Evil.

 READ: Notes on the Problem of EVIL

OK  Let's look at the problem this way:

The problem of evil is the result of the combination of a set of ideas.  It is a problem with CONCEPTS and IDEAS

A. the deity is ALL GOOD

B. The deity is ALL KNOWING

C. The deity is ALL POWERFUL

D. Evil exists

D(1). Natural evil exists

D(2).Moral Evil exists



1. Get rid of A or B or C or D

2. Get rid of the idea of the deity altogether

3. Somehow try to explain that there is a way to have A+B+C+D without a contradiction or inconsistency.

If (3) succeeded there would be no PROBLEM OF EVIL.  There have been many people over two thousand years who think that there is no way that attempting (3) can succeed.

so, there are four basic approaches to the problem and each will be examined in the following sections.

  • THEODICY explain how the traditional idea of the deity could be consistent with the existence of evil (3)
  • TRANSFORMATION of EVIL  transform the idea of evil so that it is not evil-(1)change D
  • PROCESS THEOLOGY change the idea of the deity-(1)Change A or B or C
  • ATHEISM there is no deity at all and thus no problem with evil and its relationship to the deity (2)


The problem results from the apparent inconsistency or contradiction  in a number of traits associated with the Supreme Being: God.


 Consider this: 

  1. God is all powerful
  2. If omnipotent God exists, there can be no evil
  3. God is all good
  4. If omnibenificent God exists , there can be no evil
  5. Evil exists
  6. If Evil exists, there can be no God

  7.   Therefore, it logically follows that


  1. God does not exist at all
  2. God is not all powerful- lacking in some power
  3. God is not all knowing
  4. God is not all good -creator of evil or  lacking in something that is good

The four approaches will be presented and criticized.  Before doing so some general background points are in order.


As people grow and mature and learn they acquire beliefs and entire belief systems.  They do so through receiving and accepting as true stories about how things are in this world and in a realm beyond this one and through the beliefs implicit in ordinary language and its usages.  Thus are acquired assumptions and presuppositions for the thought processes entered into through life.  In the beginning those acquiring such beliefs want to be accepted and even valued by the various groups of which they are or desire to be members, so there is an emphasis on acceptance of the beliefs shared by members of those groups and not on review or criticism of them.  There is little, if any, reflective thought or critical thinking taking place.  Little is needed if the majority of group members are operating with the beliefs without questioning of them.

Once acquired the belief systems function as a basis for the acquisition of additional beliefs.  As another idea is presented it is placed within the context of the previously acquired beliefs and if the new candidate for inclusion is consistent with or coherent with the prior beliefs and ideas it is accepted as also being true.  This is the coherentist theory of truth.  The problem with that approach to truth is that there needs to be some other method for the establishment of the fundamental beliefs or else the entire structure of beliefs while internally coherent might not be supported by any evidence external to the beliefs themselves.

As belief systems expand they can reach a point where beliefs and ideas have been accepted too hastily and when a culture or individual reach a point where reflective thought can be afforded inconsistencies and perhaps even outright contradictions may appear upon reflection.  Upon the first realization of problems, the belief systems will not be abandoned altogether and will not even be thrown into serious doubt.  Rather there will be attempts to preserve the belief system through the introduction of qualifiers and alternate interpretations designed to account for what are to be termed “apparent” discrepancies.  This process will continue until the introduction of the qualifiers and alternative interpretations reaches a point where they generate the need for even further such qualifiers and the process then becomes so burdensome that the fundamental beliefs and ideas may then come under the most careful scrutiny and there is an acceptance of a need for an alternate set of beliefs that are more internally coherent and satisfying to demands of reason and the desire for external grounding.

This occurred in the time of Socrates when the many stories about the gods and goddesses were seen through the eyes of critical reasoning to be inconsistent and incoherent.  For Socrates a basis for the grounding of morality and the social order was needed other than that provided by the stories of the Greek deities.  In addition to sharing this realization with Socrates, Plato saw that the ideas and theories of the pre-Socratics were inconsistent and there was needed an alternate view of what made anything real and how one could know anything.

Now for Socrates, Plato and Aristotle the idea of the Greek deities came to make little sense in the light of reason and so the idea of a more abstract entity emerges with them as more satisfying as an explanation of origins and order.   Their ideas satisfy the dictates of reason for which they abandoned the blind adherence to the stories of their ancestors.  These are developments that mark the origins of philosophical thought in the West.

With other western religious belief systems there were also prompts to the development of a critical thought tradition. The early Hebrew deity is one that has apparent weaknesses and is not at all perfect in every way.  It is jealous and vindictive and unjust. For the Christians the idea of the Hebrew deity was not going to be acceptable to those who had come under the influence of the Greek manner of thought.    The Christians take the idea of the all perfect being , the source of all that is true , good and beautiful, from the Greeks and layer it over the idea of the single deity of the Hebrews.  The ideas about the qualities of the early Hebrew god when combined ideas about the Greek ideal deity have made for many problems.  The Western traditions treat the scriptures as being in some sense divinely inspired or authored and thus, for many in those traditions who are conservative and literalists, they carry the ideas of the early Hebrew deity along with them leading to complications as there arises the need to explain how an all good deity and an all merciful deity can be so cruel and vindictive as in some of the stories in the early books or chapters of the scriptures.   The PROBLEM of EVIL does not exist for the old testament deity.  That deity is not ALL GOOD and not ALL KNOWING and not ALL POWERFUL.  The stories in the bible are filled with passages indicating that the deity of the Hebrews was not an "All Perfect Being".

The problem of evil comes about when the concept of the deity is changed into one in which the being has all good properties at the same time so that it is thought to be ALL GOOD and ALL KNOWING and ALL POWERFUL.

There are several ways to deal with the problem.  Process Theology changes the concept of the deity that is ALL GOOD and ALL KNOWING and ALL POWERFUL into a deity that is lacking in one or more of those properties.  They do it when they reduce the deity to some finite creature-usually thinking of the deity as being similar to a human being- the concept of the deity that causes the PROBLEM of EVIL is a concept that is not one of a human being or any finite being.  

The PROBLEM of EVIL has to do with the concept  of the deity  including that the deity is ALL GOOD and ALL KNOWING and ALL POWERFUL.  It is not a problem caused by the Bible stories.  In the bible stories in the first books of the bible, the deity of the old testament is not ALL GOOD.  The deity of the old testament-the Hebrews- commits, orders and directs atrocities-many very evil acts.  The deity of the old testament is not ALL KNOWING because it creates a being-Lucifer-not knowing that it will do evil.  The deity of the old testament creates creates humans-not knowing that they will do evil-disobey.  The deity comes upon Adam and Eve to discover what they had done.  The deity of the old testament is not ALL POWERFUL because it does not stop or end the existence of Lucifer. The deity of the old testament is not responsible for evil because in the story book the cause of evil is placed with an evil agent-Lucifer-the devil-the dark prince, etc...

Using the bible is not helpful to resolve this problem as there are too many inconsistent passages in the sacred scriptures in the West.  To illustrate just take a basic question:  " Is evil from God?  "

  • No   the deity is not the cause of evil   (Deut 32:4, Ps 19:7-8, 145:9, Mic 7:2, James 1:13). 
  • Yes  the deity is the cause of evil   (Isa 45:7, Jer 18:11, Lam 3:38, Ezek 20:25, Amos 3:6).

No   the deity is not the cause of evil    

  • Deuteronomy 32:4, 4 He is the Rock, his works are perfect,  and all his ways are just.  A faithful God who does no wrong,  upright and just is he.

  • Psalms 19:7-8,  7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.  The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple.  8 The precepts of the LORD are right,  giving joy to the heart.  The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

  • Psalm 145:9  9 The LORD is good to all;  he has compassion on all he has made.

  • Micah 7:2,  2 The godly have been swept from the land;   not one upright man remains.  All men lie in wait to shed blood;   each hunts his brother with a net.

  •  James 1:13    13When tempted, no one should say, "God is tempting me." For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone;

 YES the deity is cause of all things GOOD and EVIL

  •   Isaiah  45:7,  7   I form the light and create darkness,  I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.

  • Jeremiah  18:11,  11 "Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, 'This is what the LORD says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.'

  • Lamentations 3:38 38  Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?

  • Ezekiel 20:25 25 I also gave them over to statutes that were not good and laws they could not live by;

  • Amos 3:6  6 When a trumpet sounds in a city,  do not the people tremble?    When disaster comes to a city, has not the LORD caused it?

So when anyone thinks of the deity as  the being of the old bible stories the problem of evil is "solved"  by abandoning the concept that creates the problem in the first place.  If one thinks of the deity as a parent not knowing what its children will do or not responsible for what its children do or as some being testing humans or not able to prevent evil then the problem is "solved"  by abandoning the concept that creates the problem in the first place when the deity is changed from a being with infinitely good properties and powers into a mere human.

The Problem of Evil arises as an attempt to give an account that makes sense as to how an all perfect being could exist at the same time that there exists moral evil.  Troubles with a simple belief prompt critical reflection and the desire to use reason to support the belief system.  Consideration of the troublesome issues led to Augustine and Aquinas moving beyond the traditions of faith and into philosophical thought and a reliance on reason to interpret and defend key  beliefs in the Christian tradition.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2001. All Rights reserved.

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