Challenges to the belief in God

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  • Created by: Alice.El
  • Created on: 11-05-16 14:28

The definition of the problem of evil

The most famous definition was put forward by Epicurus over 2000 years ago

-      Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able to? Then is he not omnipotent

-      Is God able to prevent evil, but not willing to? Then is he malevolent.

-      Is God able to prevent evil and willing to? Then why is there evil

T    The problem as set out by Epicurus, highlights the difficulties that the problem of evil raises for the religious believer. It questions God’s omnipotence, God’s goodness and God’s omniscience. 

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Why the existence of evil challenges the belief in

For many people the existence of evil in the world, the amount of evil and the suffering evil causes are the greatest challenges to the belief in the existence of God.

The case against believing in God because of the existence of evil, has been set by many philosophers, including J.L. Mackie and Anthony Flew. 

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If God is all powerful why does God not prevent ev

J.L. Mackie argued it was not a logical problem because theists have to show that their beliefs make sense.

Mackie argues that if God is omnipotent that must mean God has power over the physical laws of the universe which raises the question why does God not stop evil events from happening if God has the power to stop evil and it costs God no effort to stop evil. 

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The sheer amount of evil in the world appears to c

Richard Dawkins has points out, even without human beings, the amount of suffering in the animal kingdom is immense. Does this outweigh the value of good within the world? Religious believers have a problem defending the goodness of the world in the face of the existence of evil and suffering in the world. The sheer cruelty of some evil actions also seem to challenge belief in the existence of good, omnipotent God.

Mackie argues that the price of having free will is that sometimes humans commit appallingly evil acts. He suggest that if God is really omnipotent, could not God have made human beings so that they always choose freely what is good? Biologists have argued that nature is piteously indifferent to suffering.

Nature is not good or evil; all that matters is the passing on of genes from one generation to the next. Any suffering, evil or harm that enables genes to be passed on is not the concern of nature.This doesn’t fit in with the ideas of creation, being good and having been made by God, as presented in the creation stories of different religious traditions. 

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Types of Evil

Moral evil – evil events or acts that are caused by human beings choosing freely to do the action in question. You could say that an agent caused the act freely. For example, if you stab someone, that is moral evil if you choose freely to do it.

Natural evil – events that have bad or evil consequences when experienced by human beings. For example, if a hurricane strikes a city is can cause flooding, devastation and destruction. 

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Augustine's theodicy

God: God the creator is omnipotent and all-good

·      Harmonious creation: creation is good and in the beginning was harmonious

·     Hierarchy of beings: Angels, humans, animals

·     Privation: evil is a privation or lack of goodness in something

·      The Fall: Angels and human beings fall through their own free choices and giving into temptation. Sin enters the world through Adam and Eve

·       Natural evil: Disharmony in the world follows the fall of angels leading to natural evil.

·       Free will: Free will is valuable so God sustains a world within which moral and natural evil occurs.

·     Aesthetic value: The existence of evil highlights the goodness of creation because of the contrast between good and evil.


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God the Creator

Augustine has a traditional view of God. According to Augustine, God is all-good, omnipotent and omniscient.

This created a problem that Augustine tried to solve: ‘If God is good and he is omnipotent, and he created the world, why is evil in it?’

If God created the universe and continues to sustain it in existence for every moment of every day, it means that if people commit acts of evil, God is sustaining the evil acts. 

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Evil and Privation

Augustine solves the problem of saying God is responsible for evil in the world by defining evil as a privation.

Augustine wrote that ‘evil is not a substance’.

McCabe argues that badness and evil are about not living up to expectations; it’s something lacks a quality it should have.

Augustine influenced McCabe and it is clear Augustine held the same idea about evil. Augustine rejects the idea that evil is a force or power opposed to God because this would mean that God has a rival and was no omnipotent, which deviates from the traditional Christian view of God.

The idea of evil being a privation can also be applied to human beings.

According to Augustine’s view, if you say that a human being is evil, or that their actions are evil. It suggests the way they behave does not match expectations about how someone should behave. 

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The origins of Evil in the theodicy

Most of Augustine’s thinking originates from moral choices.

‘Evil comes from God’ (Augustine)

Christians disagree and believe that God is good.

Augustine believed that God causes everything that exists. He also believed that evil is not a thing but something ‘missing’ or ‘lacking’. So if a person is ‘evil’ they lack qualities we expect to find in them.

As a result Augustine suggests ‘evil comes from God’ because God causes them to exist.  He keeps human beings in existence who have free will and cause evil to exist through their free choices.

No one is totally and purely evil according to Augustine because to be evil you have to lack goodness, which means you had goodness to start with. 

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The Garden of Eden

In the first Genesis story two other points are continually emphasised:

-      Creation is good

-      Human beings are made in the image and likeness of God

For Augustine this means that human beings are not just physical creatures but also spiritual. Christians interpret this as meaning that human beings are capable of rational thought, and this is a God like quality.

The Garden of Eden is characterised by a state of harmony. There is no suffering. Suffering is a result of disharmony. 

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The Fall

Adam and Eve’s choice in the story is to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Adam and Eve have a choice about whether to know good and evil.

Eve is tempted by the serpent and uses her free will to choose to do what she is told not to do. Adam is then tempted by Eve.

The important feature of the story is that Adam and Eve choose not to be in harmony with God – this is the first sin, often called original sin in Christian thinking.

Therefore humans are born into the disharmony cause by Adam and Eve. 

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The Hierachy of Beings

One idea of Augustine writings is that he discusses the creation of spiritual beings as well as life on earth.

For Augustine, God creates the full range of types of life – this means physical life such as humans and purely spiritual life such as angels. He believed that all beings were good and perfect.

Devils are sometimes described as fallen angels who chose to turn away from God. According to Augustine this brought disharmony into creation and it is the actions of Devils that led to natural evil being in the world, because of the disharmony devils caused in nature.

For Augustine, Natural and Moral evils are caused by free will.  The consequence of disharmony is suffering. In the story God punishes the man with hard work to survive and the woman with pain in childbirth.

These are consequences of lack of harmony in creation. For Augustine, God created a good and perfect world – moral choices led to the evil in the world. 

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Sharing in Adam's sin

Augustine argued that all human beings were seminally present in Adam’s sin.

What he meant is that all human beings are descended from Adam and Eve and all share the consequences of Adam and Eve’s choice. In Christian theology all people are said to share in Adam’s sin because they are seminally present in Adam.

All future people are born into this disharmonious world. 

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Why create creatures with free will?

Augustine believed that free will is more valuable than having robots who always do God’s will. Therefore Augustine would argue that allowing evil to happen is a price worth paying for human freedom.

It is very important to understand the consequences of the view:

-      It means that God allows evil things to happen and has made and sustains a world and people who do evil things, such as murder, ****, torture, discriminate and so on.

-      If there was no free will it would also remove all the good choices which people have the chance to make. For example, you could not choose actions that bring joy, happiness and hope, and you could not choose to marry or have children.

Augustine also argued that when the creation is viewed as a whole, the contrast between what is good and what is bad highlights the beauty of goodness. This is called the aesthetic principle. 

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Criticisms of Augustine's theodicy

Plausibility – many philosophers question whether the theodicy of Augustine is believable in the light of today’s understanding of science.

Augustine took the Genesis story too literally and people think that there is no convincing evidence that angles exist.

Hick suggested that Augustine’s theodicy is implausible for modern people.

Alvin Plantinga responded to this and suggested that, for Augustine’s theodicy to be successful the existence of angels has to be possible. We do not have to demonstrate the existence of angels.

Swinburne and Plantinga have strongly defended the idea that evil arises from humans misusing their free will.

Many Christians today would not interpret the story of creation and the Fall literally, but they would say that its importance lies in what the story tries to tell people about the world.  

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Augustine’s explanation of the fall starts from the situation of a perfect world created by God that is then harmed by humans and angels misusing free will.

The findings of scientists make it quite clear that the earth developed slowly over a period of four billion years.

Biologists have demonstrated that life has developed through the mechanism of evolution by natural selection.

Augustine’s belief in perfect world that is then spoilt by evil cannot be accepted as true in any literal sense.

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Adam's sin

Augustine states that all people share in the effects of the fall because they were seminally present in Adam’s sin.

Biology clearly indicates that every person is a unique individual who inherits half of their DNA from their mother and half from their father.

Augustine’s ideas rely on the ancient understanding of biology which said that the life force of a baby came from man and the flesh from the woman. 

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How could the perfect world go wrong?

Philosophers such as Schleiermacher have questioned why a perfect world would go wrong. If angels were created to live in the presence of God, why would they turn away from God?

God’s responsibility for natural evils

Even if Augustine’s argument that moral evil is caused by misuses of free will is accepted, many Christians are uncomfortable with Augustine’s thinking about natural disasters.

For example, Augustine argues for a world in which God is responsible for everything and second that suffering is a punishment for the sin of Adam.

This does not fit in with belief in a merciful and kind God.

Augustine argued that God was merciful because he sent Jesus to save people, but people today could equally argue: why did God not create a world with less suffering? 

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