The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil has always posed a quandary with regards to the traditional ideas of Theism – so much so that an entire school of study, theodicy, has been formed to attempt to defend the idea of a Theistic God. The idea of a Theist God is that there is one creator God, who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. These ‘traits of God’, as we will call them, form the idea of the ‘perfect’ being. The Problem of Evil refutes the existence of such a being through the fact that each trait of God is incompatible due to the existence of Evil in our world.[1] Some argue that God is not necessarily benevolent, as mentioned in Isaiah 45:7 of the Bible or in the idea that God is inscrutable. The Epicurean Paradox, as quoted by Blackburn, asks the question if such a God would be worth universal worship (Blackburn, 1999:169). The Epicurean Paradox built the basis for the Problem of Evil, and asked the question not only if God exists, but if we should believe him to be good. The Problem of Evil argues that a God with the aforementioned traits should be willing and able to eliminate Evil, or would not have made it in the first place (Rowe, 1979:336). The argument has successfully disproven the existence of a Theist God with the perfect traits of Theism. Theodicy attempts to object to the Problem of Evil in a number of ways. This essay will be responding to two aspects of the ‘Greater Good’ defence, the idea that Evil is necessary for the existence of free-will and that it is also necessary for the existence of ‘Good’ itself.

The ‘Free-will Defence’ is the belief that, to paraphrase Hick, the ability to enact Evil is intrinsic to human free-will. According to Hick (1990), Christian theodicy believes that humans should be free to choose wrongly and rightly in order to have free-will (Hick, 1990:40).[2] The debate on if free-will actually exists is long and won’t be dealt with in this essay. Rather, I will be disputing that many evils in the world are not the fault of human choice, that the nature of our world demands Evil and that the inhibition of Evil actions would not violate free-will.

The free-will defence does not consider the existence of non-human caused Evil, only ‘moral evil’. It is a fact that disease, natural disasters, climate and other completely natural factors contribute to suffering on a daily basis (Blackburn, 1999:175). The existence of an earthquake was not my choice or anyone else’s. If we are to believe in a creator God, then we have to come to the conclusion that he created all the disasters and natural causes for suffering in the world.[3] If he is omnipotent, this would be completely possible – but not if he was omnibenevolent. A Good God would not wish suffering upon its creations. Some would argue that the suffering builds upon a greater Good; I will be responding to that point later in the essay.

The very nature of our world requires Evil actions to occur. Even if we have a choice to do wrong or not, our very nature influences us to hurt other beings. Blackburn (1999) states it well when he argues that a God should have been capable of preventing, in the example he used, the mass murders by the hand of Stalin (Blackburn, 1999:175). God could have influenced our natures in order to prevent our inclination towards Evil. This would not have violated our free-will in the same way that our inclination to not jump off bridges does not violate our free-will.[4] It is true that all species have intrinsic natural inclinations. God, as an omnipotent being, could have influenced our nature in order to prevent moral evil.

Even taking human choice out of the equation, this argument ignores the nature of our world. Our survival relies on our consumption of living organisms. Even vegetarians are guilty of killing plants for their survival. An omnipotent God could have easily eliminated the need for consumption, and thus, the need to kill and cause suffering.

There are arguments which suggest that the prevention of such actions as killing would be a violation of free-will, this is not true. The lack of valid choices in a scenario does not mean a lack of free-will – the forcing of a choice upon a being is the violation of free-will. My free-will is not being violated by my inability to not fly by flapping my arms, so it is completely reasonable to state that an inability to cause suffering (or experience suffering) is not a violation of free-will. God, as an omnipotent being, could have created a world in which suffering and the ability to cause suffering, did not exist and still allow us to have free-will. Being able to choose between: a) Giving a gift; b) Hugging the person; or c) Brutally murdering them, is free-will; but so would be only options A and B. Free-will is the ability to make a choice, not the ability to make any choice. That would make us omnipotent.[5]

Even with free-will, as an objection to the Problem of Evil, refuted – there is a theodicy to believe that Evil and suffering has a greater purpose which makes an omnibenevolent God willing to abide by Evil. This mostly stems from the ideas that: Good cannot exist without Evil (Mora, 1983:399)[6]; that God may have a purpose for Evil (Blackburn, 1999:172), and that suffering is needed to improve us as humans  (Blackburn, 1999:174).

Good and Evil are not independent entities – they are adjectives. They are used to describe actions and entities. Saying that, “Good cannot exist without Evil” is akin to saying that a red mug cannot exist without a blue mug. It is easy to see the logical flaw here. Something does not need a polar opposite to exist. Opposites create contrast, not existence. If we are to fathom a utopia where a God did not create any Evil, then there may very well not be a term for Good, but that would not prevent the actions we deem as Good to exist. Mora (1983) attempts to justify the existence of Evil by implying the need for suffering by stating that we cannot appreciate Good (she uses joy and happiness as an example) without Evil (a lack of happiness) (Mora, 1983:401). D’Orelli (1884) states, quite aptly, that this view goes against the very nature of morality (D’Orelli, 1884:190). There are no generally accepted moral theories that suggest that a person should commit Evil actions in order to create a better contrast with his Good actions. Mora adds to her claims by suggesting the need for the fear of loss and suffering to contribute to the passion of love  (Mora, 1983:400). This may be true in our current reality but a theistic God is meant to be omnipotent. If he was willing (omnibenevolent) and able (omnipotent) he could create a world in which love could exist without loss and by extension, Good without Evil.

There may very well be a greater meaning behind our suffering and the existence of Evil, but as an omniscient being, God should know that the levels of Evil actions facing us are of such a magnitude that it is really overly gratuitous. Some would say that we do not understand God’s nature, but the very same theory of Theism claims to understand him as being omnibenevolent. If God has the traits of Theism, then he should understand that we are being harmed past the point of reasonability. He should not want to hurt us and should want to prevent harm from befalling us. He should be capable of doing so. Due to the fact that diseases, mass disasters, wars and other huge displays of suffering are in existence, this is not the case. As Rowe (1979) put it, suffering may be for a greater meaning, but it is still Evil (Rowe, 1979:335). The idea of a greater meaning behind suffering may be true, but the level of suffering is such that if God is what Theists believe him to be, then we do not understand what benevolence really is – and therefore, in our level of understanding, God’s benevolence is not the sort of benevolence that we want to worship, as it is too much to our own detriment.

The greater meaning that many Theodicies such as Irenaean theodicy proposes is that suffering teaches virtue and fortitude (Blackburn, 1999:174). This is akin to the idea that it is justifiable to push your one child into oncoming traffic as a means to teach the other about traffic safety. The metaphor can be extended to include injuring your child so they can appreciate the lack of pain. As argued earlier, Evil is not needed for Good to exist. I can appreciate a movie without knowing of a worse film. I might compare it, as that is the nature of our reality, but that does not mean I have to. As stated earlier, an omnipotent being could allow appreciation without contrast. In this regard, an omnipotent being could create a system in which humans grew, learned and prospered without the need for suffering. As an omnibenevolent being, they would want to do so.

The Problem of Evil still stands as a complete refutation of Traditional Theism. The concept of one being having omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence is impossible in the face of suffering. Free-will, as a defence for the existence of a Theistic God, cannot stand as there are causes of suffering outside of the control of any living organisms, let alone humans. Above this, the nature of our world requires suffering and Evil for our very survival.[7] God would also not have violated free-will if he had just made Evil non-existent. With regards to the rest of the Greater Good argument, Good does not require the existence of Evil to exist in the same way that red does not require blue. A benevolent God would not cause/allow so much suffering on us in the form of gratuitous evil. An omnipotent God would not need suffering to teach us virtue. The idea of a “Greater Good”, as a whole, is irrelevant in the face of the claimed God being omnipotent. A God (or many) may exist by other definitions, but the Problem of Evil is sufficient to prove that the traits of Theism are too contradictory and incompatible to all exist in one being simultaneously.


Blackburn, S. 1999. God. In Think. New York: Oxford. 149-192.

D’Orelli, A. 1884. The Problem of Evil. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 18(2). 188-194.

Hick, J. 1990. The Problem of Evil. In Philosophy of Religion. 4 ed. Upper Saddle River(NJ): Prentice Hall. 39-55.

Mora, F. 1983. Thank God for Evil?. Philosophy, 58(225). 399-401.

Rowe, W. L. 1979. The Problem of Evil and Some Varities of Atheism. American Philosophical Quarterly, 16(4). 335-341.


[1] Many argue against the existence of ‘Evil’ – the solution to this is the other name for the Problem of Evil argument which is the Problem of Suffering. Suffering is less ambiguous of a term, so treat every use of “Evil” in this essay to be in reference to suffering, unless otherwise stated.

[2] This, of course, does not take into account the Christian doctrine that sends the people who made the wrong choice to Hell – making free-will void.

[3] The pronoun “He” is being used for convenience and ease of reading. God could very well be a she or more likely, an it.

[4] As a species, we are not inclined to jump off bridges. Individuals are a different story. There are lions which do not kill buck, for instance.

[5] The only free-will, by the Theist argument, would be complete omnipotence. This is due to them believing that a lack of a particular choice accounts for a lack of free-will. If God was omnipotent, however, we could also be so.

[7] Which we are programmed to want to preserve.