Philosophy of Religion: The problem of evil

The philosophy of Religion concerns mostly arguments about whether God exists, what is God like if he exists, and which God(s) exist. One of most common arguments against the existence of God is what is called ‘the problem of evil’. The problem of evil is the argument that if God exists, then there should not be any evil in the world. And since there is evil in the world, God must not exist.

God of Monotheism

This argument can only be applied to a particular kind of God, which is the God of Monotheism. Monotheism means that there is only one God, who is typically meant to be all knowing, all powerful, and all good. Examples of Montheism would be the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Riddle of Epicurus

The reason the problem of evil only applies to Monotheism is because if God has limited power, knowledge or goodness then this leaves room for God to exist whilst evil also existing. However, when it is assumed God has no limits to these things, evil existing becomes a problem. This problem was popularised by Epicurus, who puts forward this riddle:

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

Logical vs evidential problem of evil

The problem of evil can be understood in two ways: logical and evidential.

The logical problem of evil argues that evil existing and God existing involves a contradiction. In my tutorial regarding conjunctions and contradictions I mention that you cannot have the conjuction of ‘A and not A’. The logical problem of evil is saying that someone who believes in God believes:

  1. Evil exists
  2. God exists
  3. God is all good, powerful and knowing
  4. If God is all good, powerful and knowing, then evil would not exist
  5. Evil does not exist

Therefore, proposition 1 and 5 are contradictions of each other, so to resolve the contradiction we need to believe that evil does not exist or God does not exist. And since evil does exist, God must not exist.

Those who believe in God can answer this problem by refuting number 4. Alvin Plantinga demonstrates an answer to the problem of evil with the following set of propositions:

  1. God exists
  2. God is all powerful, knowing and good
  3. Evil exists
  4. God has a good reason for allowing evil to exist

This allows us to consistently believe in God in a world where evil exists. However, to believe this we need to accept that God does have a good reason to allow evil. Possible reasons theists will put forward will be that the reasons are hidden from us, evil is a requirement of having free will, evil is necessary for our character, and so on.

Atheists will sometimes respond that although it is possible God has a good reason to allow evil, there is more evidence against there being a good reason than there being a good reason. This is the evidential problem of evil. Examples of evidential problem of evil would be the degree of evil that we see would exceed the possible reasons for allowing it, or circumstances where the possible reasons would not justify.

Theists will respond to this with a Theodicy. A theodicy is not a possible explanation, but an actual explanation to why God allows the observed evil in the world. An example of a Theodicy comes from Richard Swinburne, that argues if God prevented evil, then we would be robbed of the means to display virtupus character. For example being courageous. In a world where evil is impossible, we cannot be courageous. Same can be said for sympathy, compassion and so on.

I highly recommend the book “Is there a God?” By Richard Swinburne if you wish to learn more about his Theodicy, which is in the link below:

Is there a God?:

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

3 thoughts on “Philosophy of Religion: The problem of evil”

  1. Nice. Curious though, you say this argument can only be applied to a particular kind of God, but can’t such evil be applied to all the gods as well? Can it not be said that the ‘Problem of Evil’ has significant relevance to the Euthyphro dilemma?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jason,

      The reason why the problem of evil can only be applied to particular kinds of Gods instead of all Gods, is that there are many Gods that are not assumed to have unlimited knowledge, power and goodness. Consider the Greek and Norse Gods. They had their own powers and limitations, and were constantly at war with each other, tricking one another, and so on.

      The only kinds of Gods that feel the force of the problem of evil are those that are assumed to have unlimited power, knowledge and goodness. This is because if they have unlimited power, they can prevent any evil; if they have unlimited knowledge, they will know of every potential evil; if they have unlimited goodness, (it is assumed) they would want to prevent all evils. Therefore, if such Gods exist, then evil shouldn’t exist.

      Regarding the Euthyphro dilemma, there is a bit of overlap between that and the problem of evil, but they are distinct from one another. Euthyphro dilemma (if I remember correctly) is the question of whether the pious man is pious because he is loved by the Gods, or the Gods love him because he is pious? The issue here, or one of them, is whether everything God demands of us good by virtue of the fact that he demands it. I am not a philosopher of religion, but this seems similar to ‘devine command theory’ which says to know what is good is to know what God wants, since God is of unlimited goodness. However, there are others that think things are right or wrong regardless of what God tells us, so if he asks us to do something evil, then he is also evil. This is probably where the problem of evil can sneak into the Euthyphro dilemma, because it raises the question of whether anything done by God can be regarded as evil?



      Liked by 1 person

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