The Problem of Evil is the question of how an omnipotent and benevolent god can exist if there is evil and suffering in the world. And depending on how it is phrased, it also works as an argument against the existence of such a god. It is most famously stated by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus like this:
“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?”
I will clarify the argument by replacing the word “evil” with “suffering”, as suffering is the real issue at the basis of my argument and the term has a less ambiguous meaning. SOme Theists claim that the Problem of Evil is not a valid argument, and this has been their reasoning:
“The Problem of Evil is not evidence against the existence of a benevolent, omnipotent god. It is an Argument from Ignorance because we do not know God’s reasons or his plan.”
But there are severe problems with this objection. I will describe the most significant ones and in doing so I will explain why the Problem of Evil is absolutely valid.
1) Omnipotence invalidates any excuse for suffering
If your concept of God is a being that is benevolent and all-powerful, there is no excuse for any problems or suffering whatsoever. This is because an omnipotent being could have created everything and everyone in literally any way they chose (and could change it at any time). They are not limited by anything, besides of course what is logically incoherent, so there is no possible excuse for an omnipotent being to allow suffering.
The most common excuse given by believers in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent god is that this god has given people free will and he will not interfere with it.
However, one could argue in response that if interfering with free will would be the only way to eliminate suffering and enable us all to be completely happy, then that would be the chosen course of action for a benevolent god.
But even if we ignore that argument, the believers’ “free will” excuse does not validate suffering, because an omnipotent god would have multiple options to prevent it anyway.
Create. An omnipotent being could create beings with such natures that they would never be inclined to do harm or feel hatred – or act rebelliously, which is a point that must be noted by those who justify suffering on the basis of human disobedience.
And he could make it such that no living beings even can experience suffering, or make it such that anyone can enable or disable their ability to experience suffering at will; or at least have made it such that what suffering that beings experience is not severe or lasting.
A god could simply have made it impossible for suffering and harm to occur. The design of the system he created would simply not produce it.
Now would it be denying a person freedom or free will to make them unable to experience suffering, or never inclined to do harm? No, of course not. All people have different natural dispositions, personalities, and mental and physical abilities. But the fact that any given person is a particular way by nature does not mean that they lack free will. We may not be able to fly at will, for example, but no traditional Christian position I know of declares that our inability to fly like a bird is a denial of our free will. It is simply not something we can do by nature.
So if an omnipotent god existed, then everything in the universe – even the way every individual’s mind works, including all their feelings and choices – would be a completely intentional design with the exact outcome he desired. Thus all suffering would be by design and cannot have any justifiable, necessary good ultimate purpose.
Christians even believe that God will eventually fix the world and people will live in eternal bliss. As it says in Revelation 21:4, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” But this means that even within the limited thinking of their own belief system, God could have made that superior system to begin with – and even if you believe that people’s choices are entirely “free” and that they are fully responsible for them, then God could have chosen to create only the people he knew would qualify for paradise – and thus prevented suffering altogether.
And finally we need to question why a benevolent being would create anything capable of suffering if he did not have to. The very existence of beings other than himself would be completely under his control. Had he chosen to never create living beings then there would have been no suffering. There was absolutely anything to gain for himself, since he is allegedly self-sufficient, or for humans, who, they had not been created, would have have never been around to want to live. Suffering would have been a completely unnecessary, intentional creation. Therefore by creating a world where suffering was possible, a god would have performed an unnecessary, non-benevolent act and could not be fully benevolent.
Alter. God could alter any negative effects of free will without interfering with anyone’s free will itself. This could apply to diseases, poverty, drought, or any number of things that believers say is the result of free will. This would also apply to all effects of “Original Sin”, as I explain in my article on that subject.
Furthermore, the Abrahamic God alters people’s minds in the Biblical story, such as when he causes Pharoah to pursue Moses or when he stirs up the Medes against Israel. If he used such methods before, then he could certainly use the same methods today to prevent pain and suffering.
Obstruct. It would be no difficulty for an omnipotent god to simply obstruct the harmful actions that anyone intends to do. This would not interfere with their free will since only their actions are being stopped.
Destroy. The God of the Torah, Bible, and Quran has displayed quite clearly in those texts that he is perfectly willing to physically destroy people. These examples range from Noah’s Flood, to the destruction of Sodom and Gamorrah, to making Ananias and his wife drop dead where they stood, and many, many more. If this God existed then he could simply end the lives of anyone who was doing harm.
This list has explained numerous ways that an omnipotent god could prevent suffering without denying anyone their free will.
2) Suffering allowed by an omnipotent god cannot be justified as being for our benefit
Some people have tried to argue that suffering is allowed by God because it is necessary to make us stronger or better in some way, such as how a parent might not help their child sometimes i norder for them to develop or learn a lesson.
However, such an argument is highly flawed. First, a human parent does not control the nature of the universe or all the conditions they exist in or what is necessary for their child to develop. Their available choices are restricted by the nature of the universe that already exists. But an omnipotent God who is creating everything from scratch has no limitations or conditions that would necessitate them allowing suffering. He would be able to simply make all beings such that they develop to the best possible way naturally, or just create everyone in that state from the time they come into existence.
Second, the types of suffering experienced by millions of people is usually entirely useless and provides no benefit at all. There is no justifiable benefit to suffering rape before you are murdered, or to living in impoverished or violent conditions that cause many to suffer and die, or to experience extreme depression from causes beyond your control, and so on.
The combination of these points renders the “beneficial” justification for suffering completely absurd.
3) Suffering cannot be blamed on ourselves
Christians insist that the existence of suffering does not reflect on God’s nature because although God is perfect, humans are not, and thus suffering arises from our own actions.
In Point 1 of this article I explained why god could have avoided all undesirable actions, and those points apply here as well. To reiterate, an omnipotent being could have made humans far superior than they are. He could have even given them equally perfect benevolence as Christians allege he has himself, and other traits that would have avoided the problems of our existence such as being subjected to the cruelty or results of the irrationality of others. Furthermore, plenty of suffering that occurs is not caused by humans. Natural disasters and genetic disorders for example can obviously not all be blamed on human activity.
Fundamentalists will also argue that God made the world in a good state but humans chose to disobey in the garden of Eden. They believe that this act of disobedience caused “sin” to be unleashed upon the world like some sort of airborn pathogen.
But in response to this, first, we have no reason to believe that such an event ever occurred and that it is anything but another myth or allegory. And second, if it were true, it would mean that God designed the world such that if anyone “sinned” once then evil and suffering would be unleashed upon all subsequent innocent beings that would ever live. He could have simply made it affect only the person who committed the crime. Punishing myriad people for the crime someone else committed is not a benevolent act and is incompatible with a fully benevolent and omnipotent god. Third, as mentioned in Point 1 of this article, an omnipotent, omniscient being would be entirely responsible for the ways that humans think and behave since he could have designed their natures to be any other way he chose.
4) Defining evil as “absence of good”
Christians often attempt to get around the problem of evil by defining Evil as “an absence of good”, rather than a distinct thing on its own that God created.
However this is a useless argument because if God created places and beings “without good” fully throughout them, then that qualify as an act of creating evil by their own definition. Remember that God is allegedly the creator of everything, not a being that happened upon the scene then did his best to add more “good” into it. The existing situation and nature of everything is entirely his making.
But more important is the simpler point that “good” and “evil” are subjective terms. The issue is simply whether God created a situation in which beings would suffer, thus the way one defines evil is irrelevent. So the points made in Section 1 remain valid.
5) Lacking certain understanding of an evil action is not evidence that the intent was good
Even if we assume a god exists, that being’s plans are irrelevant to whether it is most likely benevolent or not. Would you just assume that a dictator has your best interest in mind no matter how much suffering and cruelty exists under their rule despite them easily being able to stop that cruelty easily? Would you call them benevolent? Should a slave care about the “master’s” concerns at his/her own expense?
It makes no sense to just accept actions that cause us suffering unless we DO understand that the actions are necessary for some benefit that we agree to. The most direct conclusion of the evidence of an evil act, is that the perpetrator was most likely evil. This is increasingly the case if the perpetrator is very powerful.
Remember that evidence is “the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.” So how much or how little we know about the universe is irrelevant, since within our available body of knowledge – that is, without making assumptions – the existence of suffering indicates that it is most likely that a benevolent, omnipotent, omniscient designer did not cause our existence.
6) The Problem of Evil is not an Argument from Ignorance fallacy
An Argument from Ignorance is when a person makes a non sequitur based on the fact that we lack of 100% certain knowledge of the particular issue in question regardless of the evidence we have that points to a contrary conclusion as being a more direct and likely explanation.
The Problem of Evil is not an Argument from Ignorance because the Problem of Evil refers to actual evidence which is contrary to the claim that an omnipotent being exists that is also benevolence. It is just not evidence against a generic god.
However, when a person claims that the Problem of Evil is invalid because we cannot “know” God’s plan or mind, that is an Argument from Ignorance because it follows a couple unnecessary assumptions – that God is acting benevolently but his reasons are beyond our ability to understand – rather than only following the evidence and fewest assumptions. And since the assumption requires assuming that God exists, it is also circular reasoning.
The most direct explanation is simply that no such god exists because such a position removes that unnecessarily presupposed factor.