Problem of evil

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For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

The problem of evil points out a logical contradiction in the traditional conceptions of the nature of God and the world.

As Epicurus pointed out:

"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?"

There are many counter arguments to the problem of evil. These arguemnts are known as theodicies, a term coined by Gottfried Leibniz. A theodicy can generally be divided into four categories, each typically rejecting one of the four premises used to make the argument. The argument is, after all, not an argument for the non-existence of God but an argument for the non-existence of God with all three of the characteristics of omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence in the presence of evil.

Many counter arguments rely on wild and unsubstantiated speculation:

"So how do theists respond to arguments like this? [The Argument from Evil] They say there is a reason for evil, but it is a mystery. Well, let me tell you this: I'm actually one hundred feet tall even though I only appear to be six feet tall. You ask me for proof of this. I have a simple answer: it's a mystery. Just accept my word for it on faith. And that's just the logic theists use in their discussions of evil. [1]"

Most theodicies crumble in the face of easily prevented, extremely "evil" acts, such as the rape and murder of a child, or a gross atrocity like the holocaust, slavery or other genocides. Many theodicies have worse implications than the original problem.

A closely related problem is the problem of suffering.


The argument

The logical argument of evil has four premises:

  1. God is omnipotent.
  2. God is omnibenevolent.
  3. God is omniscient.
  4. Evil exists.

We get the following contradiction. If God is omnibenevolent, then he does not want evil to exist. If God is omniscient, then he must know about all evil in the world. If God is omnipotent, then he must be capable of doing something about it. Therefore, evil should not exist. Dropping any one of those four premises would resolve the contradiction, but dropping #4 would require us to fundamentally redefine evil in some way, and dropping the other three would undermine the Christian concept of God.

David Hume expressed the argument as:

"Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive; except we assert, that these subjects exceed all human capacity"

Counter arguments: God is not omnipotent

Free will defence

It is often claimed that evil exists because God gave humans free will. According to the Bible, God's gift of free will led to the fall of Adam and Eve through their original sin. Free will is assumed to be a greater good than the evil that it causes or is needed by God to serve some purpose. For example, free will is required for people to love God in a free and open fashion. So if a young girl is raped and murdered, this is because God needed the rapist's free will so that his actions could result in greater good or so that the rapist could freely love God.

See also:

Plantinga's version

For more information, see the Wikipedia article:

Apologists such as Alvin Plantinga have made the claim that although there may be some moral evil in the world, this is in fact the best of all possible worlds. The argument attempts to show the possibility that God could not have created a better world. Therefore, an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God may possibly be compatible with evil. Since they are possibly compatible, the axioms of the problem of evil do not imply a contradiction. [2]

"It is possible that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free creatures who never choose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that God, even being omnibenevolent, would desire to create a world which contains evil if moral goodness requires free moral creatures."
"The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good."

This theodicy suggests that no improvement may be made to the world because doing so would violate free will. According to this argument, it is impossible for God to intervene to prevent a murder.

"So long as it is even possible that God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting evil, it follows that God and evil are logically consistent. [3]"

See also:

Natural evil

The free will defence fails to explain why God allows natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. These are collectively known as "natural evil" and kill large numbers of people based on geographical locations. This indicates that the concept of "evil" is not necessarily tied to what people do. Furthermore, it fails to account for evil done to people against their will. The argument of free will is used to justify why an infant can be killed, however the infant invoked no measure of free will to allow for this evil to result. So in order to give the gift of free will to this infant, the child is murdered without having any choice in the matter.

Even if we define natural disasters as not being evil, there remains the fact that they occur, and that God does not prevent them or the deaths and suffering they cause. If we replace "evil" with "suffering" in the discussion above, the problem remains: either God is unaware of people's suffering, and is therefore not omniscient; or he is unable to do anything, and is therefore not omnipotent; or he is unwilling to intervene, and is therefore not omnibenevolent.

Free will does not exist

Evidence uncovered by psychologists undermines the existence of free will. What moral choices are explained partly by our culture, by our upbringing, by our genes, even by the state of our brains (since some types of brain damage affect our moral decisions and our capacity to lead a morally good life).

Many philosophers have dismissed free will because the universe apparently operates based on causality or natural laws. This implies hard determinism, which is usually considered to be incompatible with free will.

Free will is not a defence

Even if human sin is the cause of evil, God is still ultimately responsible, since he could have foreseen the outcome and God created humans anyway knowing they would sin. Alternatively, God could have chosen not to create humans at all. If God cannot do evil and any world (supposedly) must contain at least some evil, not creating the world would seem to be a viable option.

"The world, we are told, was created by a God who is both good and omnipotent. Before He created the world He foresaw all the pain and misery that it would contain; He is therefore responsible for all of it. It is useless to argue that the pain in the world is due to sin. In the first place, this is not true; it is not sin that causes rivers to overflow their banks or volcanoes to erupt. But even if it were true, it would make no difference. If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man. [4]"

Bertrand Russell

A better world is possible

It is easy to propose improvements to the world, which directly refutes Plantinga's argument that we possibly live in the best possible world.

"[Suppose] I show you a house or palace, where there was not one apartment convenient or agreeable; [...]; you would certainly blame the contrivance, without any further examination. The architect would in vain display his subtlety, and prove to you, that if this door or that window were altered, greater ills would ensue. What he says may be strictly true: The alteration of one particular, while the other parts of the building remain, may only augment the inconveniences. But still you would assert in general, that, if the architect had had skill and good intentions, he might have formed such a plan of the whole, and might have adjusted the parts in such a manner, as would have remedied all or most of these inconveniences. His ignorance, or even your own ignorance of such a plan, will never convince you of the impossibility of it. If you find any inconveniences and deformities in the building, you will always, without entering into any detail, condemn the architect."

David Hume

God could allow free choice but intervene to reduce or mitigate the harm one person inflicts on another. This is a simple improvement that would reduce suffering and evil overall without interfering with free choice directly.

God could have made humans less lazy. This would obviously result in an overall benefit without interfering with free will.

"Let [humans] be endowed with a greater propensity to industry and labour; a more vigorous spring and activity of mind; a more constant bent to business and application. [...] Almost all the moral, as well as natural evils of human life, arise from idleness [...] Here our demands may be allowed very humble, and therefore the more reasonable. [5]"

The obvious non-optimal design of the world leads to the argument from poor design for God's non-existence.


If Heaven exists, the problem of evil is strengthened. If God can allow people to have a worthwhile existence in Heaven in the future (where no evil exists), there is no obvious reason why evil exists now. As Mackie asked: [6]

Why could [God] not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? Even if man is believed to have free will, God could have created humans such that they would always freely choose the good. This he did not do and is therefore ultimately responsible and blameworthy for any evil act which humans perform.
For at least some theists, this difficulty is made even more acute by some of their further beliefs: I mean those who envisage a happier or more perfect state of affairs than now exists, whether they look forward to the kingdom of God on earth, or confine their optimism to the expectation of heaven. In either case they are explicitly recognizing the possibility of a state of affairs in which created beings always freely choose the good. If such a state of affairs is coherent enough to be the object of a reasonable hope or faith, it is hard to explain why it does not obtain already.

If heaven exists, a better world is clearly possible. God could have just created a group of people in Heaven and simply omit creating Earth and Hell.

Other moral agents exist

Other moral agents, such as evil spirits, could be the cause of evil. This is effectively relying on polytheism, which is not a favored tactic of most apologists.

Humans limit free will of others

We find it morally acceptable to incarcerate people who are dangerous, in order to limit their choices and mitigate their harm. It is contradictory to claim that God could not limit the harm caused by very morally evil people.

"Why, if this argument would be unacceptable coming from a human being, should we think it any more acceptable coming from God? [7]"

Free will is superior

The free will defence often relies on the suppose fact that humans with free will are better than humans without free will or total non-existence. This has not been established and is pure speculation.

"'God thought it good to create free persons' (p. 170) [because] '[a] world containing creatures who are sometimes significantly free (and [who] freely perform more good actions than evil ones) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all.' (p. 166) [8]"

Moral good requires the possibility of moral evil

"God could not have created a universe containing moral good (or as much moral good as this world contains) without creating one that also contained moral evil [2]"

The free will defence often relies on the suppose fact that moral good was created by God but requires the humans that sometimes choose to do morally evil acts. In Plantinga's jargon, it is possible that "every essence suffers from transworld depravity." This has not been established and is pure speculation. Some compatibilist philosophers (who accept both determinism and free will) claim that God could have created a world where people always choose good.

"There is nothing logically inconsistent about a free agent that always chooses the good. [7]"

As mentioned above, the existence of heaven would show that moral good can exist apart from moral evil.

God could influence people while still allowing free choice

Holy books often refer to direct interactions between God and humans. This apparently does not remove the human's free will. According to scripture, interaction with God influences people he interacts with. Many theists also pray for God's guidance and believe they receive it. Based on these precedents, God should be capable of influencing people to do good. If God actually influences people to be good (and supposing God is omnipotent), this would greatly reduce or eliminate evil while still allowing for free will. We would also expect to see a sustained effort on the part of God to influence humans. However, there is no evidence this occurs and significant evil still exists.

"God can still do lots of things so that people will more often choose to do morally right things freely, even if He can't absolutely guarantee it. (See this cartoon for examples of this.) After all, people's evil decisions don't come entirely from a vacuum. God can do lots of things to make it more likely that people would freely do morally good actions (things having to do with genetics, the environment, the temperament that people have, etc.), so that not all of the evils caused by people nowadays are necessary in order to have a world in which people are significantly free. [9]"

God could kill evil doers

God could simply kill off evil doers in an open and obvious manner. This would prevent future evil. This often happens in the Old Testament Genesis 19:24-25 Bible-icon.png, so it is impossible to argue this is contrary to the nature of God (as described in the Bible). The fact that it does not happen now raises the problem of evil.

If killing is too drastic, God could certainly mitigate the harm caused by evil. Since this does not happen, we face the problem of suffering.

Tough love

Apologists often claim that what appears to be harmful to humans may, in fact, be for humanity's good. How can we learn, the argument goes, without making our own mistakes?

The "tough love" argument only works if God is limited in power. If God is omnipotent there is nothing he can not teach us gently that he can teach us harshly. If he is benevolent than he would never choose to teach us a harsh lesson when it could be taught, with exactly the same impact, gently.

Another problem with this argument is that although according to this argument, God wants us to grow as people by learning from our mistakes, according to most religious doctrine he also wants worship. Worship involves complete obedience and submission, whereas learning from mistakes requires using one's intelligence. It is contradictory to claim that God wants us to be both completely obedient and make decisions for ourselves, since complete obedience means blindly obeying authority, for example the story of Abraham and Issac (Genesis 22:1-19 Bible-icon.png). Abraham was called "righteous" because he blindly obeyed God's command to murder his son. The fact that God stopped Abraham before the knife fell means nothing- even if he had allowed the murder, Abraham would still be called righteous for obeying God's command.

Really powerful, but not all-powerful

God is not all-powerful in the sense that he can create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it. So, God is omnibenevolent, omniscient, and really really powerful.

"But supposing the Author of Nature to be finitely perfect, though far exceeding mankind, a satisfactory account may then be given of natural and moral evil, and every untoward phenomenon be explained and adjusted. A less evil may then be chosen, in order to avoid a greater; inconveniences be submitted to, in order to reach a desirable end; and in a word, benevolence, regulated by wisdom, and limited by necessity, may produce just such a world as the present. [5]"

If a child is raped and killed, is this because God is not powerful enough to prevent it? I could prevent that and would strive to with the smallest degree of foreknowledge. So if this argument is to succeed it must conclude that I am more powerful than God. And more benevolent.

Unspecified reason for God's inability to prevent evil

This undermines the concept that God is actually omnipotent. Usually this is framed by apologists as an "impossibility" for God to prevent evil. This is special pleading - if there is a reason God cannot intervene, let us hear it - otherwise, we cannot simply draw conclusions about God based on unknown arguments. An omnipotent God should be able to intervene because that is the meaning of omnipotence.

How would one tell the difference between an omnipotent god who allows and/or causes evil/suffering without explaining why, and an non-omnipotent, or indifferent, god?

God does not exist

God is unable to prevent evil because God does not exist. The problem of evil does not apply to non-existent gods.

"The only excuse for God is that He does not exist."

Counter arguments: God is not omnibenevolent

Redefining benevolence

One way to redefine the term 'benevolence' is to cite limited human perspective in space and time. A parent might spank a child for running into traffic, or take a child to the doctor for painful, life saving, injections. It is only in the limited, child's-eye-view that these things are malevolent.

As with the "tough love" argument, this view of God implicitly denies his omnipotence or, at least, his omniscience. What kind of parent purposely takes his child for a surgery which he knows the child does not need or want?

Another way to redefine 'benevolence' is to argue that God may be benevolent to specific humans or to non-humans. Our entire history may exist for the positive influence it may have on aliens we have not met. We may be actors in a puppet show that makes these beings happy. After all, it is perfectly possible for benevolent humans to play comically violent video games with their delighted children.

But this argument is sophistry. To win the argument the apologist defines a God that neither we nor he would have much reason to worship. For example, if the creatures in a violent "Run and Gun" video game were to gain self awareness, would we expect them to view us as benevolent beings worthy of their love and trust as we blast them into electronic oblivion?

And, if God is not benevolent toward humans, then what differentiates him from a human sociopath or from the Devil?

The problem of evil must be taken up in the context of humanity. No other context would make a God useful to humans in any realistic way. A God that is benevolent to others at lethal expense to humans is, by definition, malevolent, or at least indifferent, toward humans. It is an unusual apologist indeed who believes in this type of God.

God is benevolent to the point of impotence

Some claim that since God is omnibenevolent, he loves all his creatures, even Satan, who is considered by many to be the embodiment of evil. Therefore it would violate his omnibenevolence to simply destroy Satan or any other evil creation. This of course implies that God is not omnipotent. It is also contradicted by the Bible, which states that God hates evil.

Evil is a consequence of disobeying God

Evil exists not because it was created by God but because it results from our disobeying God's divine laws.

This explanation argues that God has created an earthly consequence for disobeying divine laws. There are two problems with this argument: 1. Innocents being victims of evil. 2. Immoral people escaping earthly consequence. If this argument was indeed true, infants, children, and otherwise good people would not suffer and murderers, thieves, and the like would not live comfortable lives.

Perfection implies no lacking in evil

God is also evil. The problem of evil does not apply in this case.

"I devoted my first childish literary trifle, my first written philosophical exercise, to [the origin of evil]—and so far as my “solution” to it at that time is concerned, well, I gave that honour to God, as is reasonable, and made him the father of evil."

Friedrich Nietzsche [10]

God allows evil so that the good is appreciated

God wants to be loved and is very vain. He wants to be loved so much that he allows many evils to befall mankind so that they appreciate the good more. Much as the blind man healed by Jesus appreciated his sight more because of his blindness.

Counter arguments: God is not omniscient

Unlike the other characteristics of God, omniscience isn't necessarily required for the argument. Any situation God doesn't see can still be created as intended through the power of omnipotence.

Unspecified reason for not preventing evil

Apologists sometimes argue that God has a reason not to address evil which may be unknown or unknowable to humans.

"First of all, it is possible that God has reasons for allowing evil to exist that we simply cannot understand. [11]"

This undermines the concept that God is actually good. No reason can justify a "good" God from not doing good, apart from an inability to do so.

How would one tell the difference between a good god who allows and/or causes evil/suffering without explaining why, and an evil, or indifferent, god?

God does Good. Satan does Evil.

God only has limited omniscience, he cannot see the future. God simply did not know that Satan would turn against him because he cannot know the future. Satan blindsided God, who lacks future knowledge, and created evil himself. God was betrayed and Satan is the reason evil exists.

If God is all-good and all-powerful, he should snuff out Satan and promptly remove all evil from the world.

Counter arguments: Evil does not exist

Redefining evil

As with "benevolence", "evil" can be redefined. What is "evil" for humans may not be evil for God. In fact, anything that God chooses to do can be construed as "good". Using this argument, "evil" can not exist in any definable terms when applied to God.

Besides the arguments already used in the "Tough Love" response (an all powerful God would have no reason even to appear evil) here, the apologist treads dangerously close to moral relativism. We know from information in the bible that moral rules have changed at the will of God. Is God, then, a moral relativist?

If the answer is that God is following a moral plan, then the apologist opens himself up to the Euthyphro dilemma. If the answer is that God changes as he sees fit and anything that god declares as good is good, then what is the difference between being a relativist and following a relativist God?

When an apologist tries to redefine the premises of "the problem of evil" he finds himself in a morass of relativism, but when he tries to work with the premises he finds himself unwittingly limiting the unlimited God of his religion.

Evil is an illusion

We believe that evil exists because we view things like genocide as bad. We are simply wrong, all of these things are good.

Which suggests that everything which has ever happened is objectively good: rape, the holocaust, slavery, genocide. In order defend this theodicy, a proponent would need to agree that any horrific thing you could mention is a good thing to do.

It is all part of the plan

God's divine plan is good. What we think is evil is not, rather it's a part of God's plan we are misidentifying as evil because we cannot see the big picture.

The holocaust is part of God's divine plan? Young girls being raped and murdered is part of God's plan? If such things are part of God's plan, even without seeing the big picture one must conclude that it's a really bad plan. Furthermore, what is the point of a plan if one is all powerful? There are no steps needed; simply create the end results.

There is no evidence of a divine plan. This counter argument is mere speculation with an unfounded basis.

"These arbitrary suppositions can never be admitted, contrary to matter of fact, visible and uncontroverted. Whence can any cause be known but from its known effects? Whence can any hypothesis be proved but from the apparent phenomena? To establish one hypothesis upon another, is building entirely in the air; and the utmost we ever attain, by these conjectures and fictions, is to ascertain the bare possibility of our opinion; but never can we, upon such terms, establish its reality. [12]"

Evil is a test

Evil is needed so that God can test people.

The holocaust is a test of faith? Whose faith is tested when a child is murdered? If God is omniscient, then God already knows what humans will do in any test, rendering the exercise (and the pain caused by evil) pointless and unnecessary.

Evil is the absence of Good

Just as cold is the absence of hot and dark is the absence of light, evil is the absence of good.

"Second, God may be letting evil run its course in order to prove that evil is malignant and that suffering, which is the unfortunate product of evil, is further proof that anything contrary to God’s will is bad, harmful, painful, and leads to death. [11]"

This contradicts an omnipresent deity. Furthermore, if accurate then an omnipotent omnibenevolent deity should employ his omnipotence to be omnipresent in order to stand vigilant against evil.

Are evil deeds an absence of some corresponding good? Is rape an absence of unrape? Is murder an absence of unmurder? (How many people have you unraped or unmurdered today? We're committing unsins constantly!) Conversely, if baking your neighbor cookies [or name any random act of kindness] is a good deed, what is the absence of that good deed? Is it evil not to bake your neighbour cookies?

"Atheists do not have a clear concept of evil"

Apologists may claim the argument cannot be made by an atheists because they supposedly have no clear concept of evil. This is an ad hominem attack since it does not address the argument. It is a form of presuppositional apologetics. All that is necessary is that the theist accepts that the concept of evil is valid. If necessary, an atheist can simply accept the axiom of evil for the sake of this argument.


You bring evil on yourself

God is good and does good, but any evil you do you brought upon yourself. This principle is the theodicy of Islam.

If you are raped, you were bad. If you have a holocaust happen to you, you were bad. If something bad happens to you, you brought it on yourself. This theodicy consists of blaming the victim, in the case of a baby born sick or disabled it blames the parents.

Heaven exists after this world

After you die you can go to heaven which evens everything out in the end. Regardless of what pain and suffering exists here, heaven will balance out the scales. This was often used by religious authorities to justify torture and murder during the many inquisitions and crusades. The victims' temporary agony was justified if it saved them from the eternal agony of hell.

This has nothing to do with the argument, rather it's a conclusion that it doesn't matter if there is evil, rather than address the logical consequence of a deity incompatible with an evil filled world.

Another refutation of theodicies:

The Moral Argument from Evil is expounded by Dean Stretton in his article on the subject. [13]

"[...] even if theists can successfully respond to the evidential argument from evil, there is a further difficulty to be faced in the moral argument from evil. If evil is merely the harbinger of greater good, why should we be opposed to its occurrence, and why, indeed, should we be expected to prevent it? [13]"

False trilemma?

One could argue that the argument above does not cover all possibilities, much like C.S. Lewis's trilemma "Liar, Lunatic or Lord", which does not consider alternate possibilities like "Legend". The argument does not account for a God who is not able and willing, which creates the problem, as paraphrased by Epicurus, that if he is not able or willing, then why call him God?

However, the problem of evil can be restated as follows:

  1. If evil exists, and God is omniscient, then God knows about it.
  2. If God knows about evil, and is omnibenevolent, then he wants to prevent it.
  3. If God wants to prevent evil, and is omnipotent, then he can prevent it (if God wants something to happen, then it happens).
  4. Therefore, if God is omniscient, omnibenevolent, and omnipotent, then evil should not exist.

There is a logical rebuttal to this version of the problem of evil posited by Alvin Plantinga, a prominent philosopher, called the Free will defense. This defense is widely regarded as solid by the philosophical community, even with some mentionable critisisms.

The problem of good

It is fairly easy to flip the argument around: if we postulate that God is all-evil, the problem of evil becomes the problem of good: why would an infinitely evil god allow good to exist?

Many or all of the arguments against the problem of evil can easily be turned around to argue against the problem of good:

  • People do good deeds because God gave us free will, which in turn allows us to torment each other in ways that mere automata couldn't.
  • Natural beauty, such as sunsets or the majesty of a starry sky, exists so that we may more deeply appreciate the ugliness around us.
  • Mystery: while some instances of good may remain unexplained, who can claim to understand the mind of an infinitely evil god?

If the existence of evil in the universe that also includes a lot of good does not point to an infinitely evil god, then it follows that the existence of good in a universe that also includes a lot of evil does not point to the existence of an infinitely good god.

See also


  1. Quentin Smith, Two Ways to Defend Atheism, 1996 [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 1974
  3. [2]
  4. Bertrand Russell, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?
  5. 5.0 5.1 David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
  6. J. L. Mackie, "Evil and Omnipotence," Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955), pp. 200-212.
  7. 7.0 7.1 [3]
  8. Alvin Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity, 1974
  9. [4]
  10. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, Preface, aph. 3
  11. 11.0 11.1 [5]
  12. [6]
  13. 13.0 13.1 [7]

External links

v · d Arguments against the existence of god
Existential arguments   Argument from nonbelief · Who created God? · Turtles all the way down · Problem of non-God objects · Argument from incompatible attributes · No-reason argument · Santa Claus argument · Can God create a rock so heavy that he can't lift it? · Outsider test
Arguments from the Bible   Failed Prophecy · Biblical contradictions
Evidentiary arguments   Attributes of God · Inefficacy of prayer
Reasonableness arguments   Occam's Razor · Outsider test · Argument from locality · Argument from inconsistent revelations
Other arguments   Emotional pleas
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