The problem of evil and suffering

  • Created by: mrmendes
  • Created on: 22-02-19 09:19


The problem of evil and suffering is considered to be one of the most powerful arguments against the existence of God.
If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why is there evil and suffering?
Some believe that God allows evil and suffering to happen as tests in humanity’s growth.
Others say it is the result of humanity’s disobedience of God.
Some believe that God has given humanity free will in order to choose right from wrong.

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the problem

Either God cannot abolish evil or he will not: if he cannot then He is not all-powerful, if he will not, then he is not all good’ St. Augustine

There are two types of evil – natural evil which stems from the natural world, for example, diseases, earthquakes, and famines, and moral evil, which is the result of human actions, such as murder, war and serious harm. The problem of evil challenges those who believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God.

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The dilemma

If God is omnipotent (all-powerful), then he can do anything. This means he could create a world that is free from evil and suffering and he could stop all evil and suffering.
If God is omniscient and knows everything in the universe, then he must know how to stop evil and suffering.
If God is omnibenevolent (all-loving), then he would wish to end all evil and suffering. No all-loving God would wish his creation to suffer for no reason..
Yet evil and suffering do exist, so either God is not omnipotent or omnibenevolent or he does not exist.

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The logical problem of evil

These three viewpoints lead to an inconsistent triad – that is, if you accept two you must reject the third. A good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely. Therefore, the proposition that a good omnipotent being exists, and that evil exists are incompatible’

Gods omnipotence
Gods perfect goodness
Evil exits

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The problem of suffering

These three viewpoints focus on the experience of the evil. It raises different questions because of the experience of suffering. Whereas the logical argument attempts to show that the existence of God is inconsistent with the existence of evil and so leads to atheism, the personal argument involving the experience of suffering focuses on the moral issue. Assuming God exists can such a God be trusted?

Why this?
Why now?
Why me?

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J L Mackie

Mackie focussed on the logical problem of evil. The logical problem arises because theists maintain that there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do. However, Mackie claims that the only solution to the logical problem is to deny this and that all so called ‘solutions’ or ‘theodicies’ actually limit God’s power but misleadingly keep the term ‘omnipotence’. He argues that in the various theodicies:

  • God is bound by logical necessities. Hence not omnipotent since he cannot do what is logically impossible
  • God is subject to causal laws which he made. Hence not omnipotent because he has to introduce evil as a means to good.
  • God makes things that he cannot control. Hence not omnipotent because he has created human wills that he cannot control.
    Therefore, Mackie argues that the theodicies do not give a solution to the problem of evil since they have changed the premise (i.e. that God is omnipotent).
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William Rowe in his work: ‘The problem of evil and some varieties of atheism’ (1979) argued that, whilst it seemed reasonable for God to allow some limited suffering to enable humans to grow and develop, he could not accept God allowing what he called ’intense’ suffering’ Animal suffering also seemed pointless. Rowe used the example of a fawn caught in a forest fire as an example of pointless animal suffering. He argues:

  • An omnipotent and omniscient being would know when intense suffering was about to take place.
  • Such a being could prevent the suffering from happening.
  • An all-loving being would probably prevent all evil and suffering that had no
    purpose and was pointless and avoidable.
  • Such evil and suffering does happen.
  • Therefore, probably God does not exist.
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Gregory Paul

Gregory Paul argues that the death of so many innocent children challenges the existence of God. He estimates that over 50 billion children have died naturally and some 300 billion human beings have died naturally but prenatally. He argues:

  • Millions of innocent children suffer and die every year, from both natural and evil causes.
  • These children are too young to be able to make choices about God – they have no freewill.
  • No all-loving, all-powerful being would permit such suffering.
  • Therefore God does not exist.
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Religious responses

God’s goodness is a very different concept from human goodness and many religious believers say that God allows evil to exist as part of his greater plan of love. Such an approach has led to the development of theodicies to justify the existence of a loving God in the face of evil.

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The Augustinian theodicy

  • Augustine (354-430 CE) argued that the Bible shows that God is wholly good and that, according to Genesis 1, created out of nothing (ex nihilo) a world perfectly good and free from defect, evil, and suffering: ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good’. (Genesis 1:31).
  • Evil itself is not a physical thing and therefore God did not create it. Evil is really the going wrong of something that is good (evil as a privation).
  • Augustine said that evil came not from God, but from those entities which had free will – angels and human beings who turned their backs on God.
  • So, the state of perfection was ruined by human sin.
  • Natural evil came about through the loss of order in nature
  • Moral evil came from the knowledge of good and evil which human beings
    had discovered through their disobedience
    God is right not to put a stop to suffering, since the punishment is justice for human sin and God is a just God.
    However, Augustine notes that God, in his infinite love and grace, sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die so that those who believed and accepted him could be saved. The emphasis of the theodicy is soul-deciding. Our response to evil and God’s rescue plan of salvation determines what happens to us when we die.
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Criticism of the Augustinian theodicy

  • Either the world was not perfect to start with, or God made it go wrong. If so, then it is God, and not humanity, who is to blame.
  • Augustine’s view that the world was made perfect and damaged by human beings is contrary to the theory of evolution, which asserts that the universe began as chaos and has been developing continually.
  • If God created perfect human beings who sinned, then they must have been created with a flaw.
  • Suffering is essential to survival – things must die in order that others might eat and live – God must bear the responsibility for this.
  • The existence of Hell as a place of eternal punishment seems a contradiction for an all-loving God.
  • If Hell was part of the design of the universe, then did God know that the world would go wrong anyway, and still allowed it to happen?
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  • Irenaeus made a distinction between the ‘image’ and the ‘likeness’ of God (Genesis 1:26).
  • Adam had the form of God but not the content of God.
  • Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden because they were
    immature and needed to develop into the likeness (content) of God
  • Goodness and perfection had to be developed by human beings
    themselves, through willing co-operation with God.
  • God had to give them free will and such freedom requires the possibility of
    choosing evil instead of good.
  • Our world of mingled good and evil is a divinely appointed environment for
    the development of human beings towards perfection
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John Hick

  • If God had made humanity perfectly, then they would have had the goodness of robots, which would automatically love God without thought or question.
  • Such love would be valueless.
  • God wanted human beings to be genuinely loving
  • To achieve this, God had to create human beings at an epistemic distance from
    him - a distance in dimension or knowledge, by which God is not so close that humans would be overwhelmed by him and so have no choice but to believe and obey. By keeping a distance, God allows human beings to freely choose.
  • If there was no evil and suffering, then human beings would not be free to choose, since there would only be good.
  • Without the existence of evil and suffering, human beings would not be able to develop the positive qualities of love, honour, courage and so on, and would lose the opportunity to develop into God’s likeness.
  • Hick is suggesting that the world is a place of soul making, that is, a place where human beings have to meet challenges in order to gain perfection
  • This process is justified because of the eventual outcome. If the process is not completed in this life, then Hick argued we go to another life in another realm until the process is complete. The emphasis in the theodicy is soul-making.
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Critism on the Irenaean theodicy

  • Hick suggested that everyone goes to heaven. This does not seem fair and just; it contradicts religious texts of many faiths and suggests that there is ultimately no reason to be good.
  • The challenges of the world do not always result in genuine human development, and often seem to produce nothing but great misery and suffering.
  • D.Z. Phillips argued that love could never be expressed by allowing suffering to happen: What are we to say of the child dying from cancer? If this has been done to anyone that is bad enough, but to be done for a purpose planned from eternity – that is the deepest evil. If God is this kind of agent, He cannot justify His actions and His evil nature is revealed.
  • As a Christian theodicy, the death of Jesus and forgiveness seem irrelevant
  • There is no evidence for other lives after death
  • How can the end be guaranteed? Surely people could choose evil for eternity
    and so never reach perfection.
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Differences between Augustine and Irenaeas

The main difference between Augustine and Irenaeas is that the former believed that humanity was created perfectly and turned against God, leading to evil and suffering coming into the world. Irenaeas, on the other hand, believed that humanity was deliberately created imperfectly so that, though suffering, humanity could develop into goodness.

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Free will

  • In the Augustinian type theodicy, evil in the world is due to humanity’s misuse of the gift of freewill. God created a world in which human beings could decide freely to love and obey God
  • In Hick’s theodicy, people have freedom to come to God since God deliberately creates a world in which it is not overwhelmingly evident that there is a God. Human goodness occurs through making free and responsible moral choices, in situations of difficulty and temptation.
  • God cannot intervene because to do so would compromise human freedom and take away the need for humans to be responsible, thus preventing human development; ‘The less he allows men to bring about large
    scale horrors, the less freedom and responsibility he gives them’
    (Richard Swinburne).
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Critism on free will

  • The idea of freewill fails to answer the criticism that divine love cannot be expressed through suffering.
  • J.L. Mackie observed: ‘‘God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong: there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always choose right’.
  • Freewill means that God is not omnipotent since God cannot control the choices that human beings make
  • God could have chosen to create a world without free creatures
  • There is no justification for natural evil.
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‘A generous God will seek to give us great responsibility for ourselves, each other, and
the world, and thus a share in his own creative activity of determining what sort of world it is to be. And he will seek to make our lives valuable, of great use to ourselves and to each other. The problem is that God cannot give us these goods in full measure without allowing much evil on the way’.

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