6.4 The Problem of Evil


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • Why the existence of evil is a problem for monotheism.
  • Some attempts to explain (theodicies) how a good God can allow evil.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of theodicy arguments.

The existence of evil and suffering in the world is a significant philosophical problem for both theists and atheists. Regardless of whether one believes in some type of supreme being or not, eventually, everyone must reconcile the existence of suffering and evil with their beliefs about the world. As the philosopher Viktor Frankl (Frankl, 1946) points out, “Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

There are two basic types of evils, moral evil, and natural evil, and any attempt at reconciling the problem of evil must address both. Moral evil is that which is perpetrated by human beings and is generally considered to be morally wrong. Murder is an example of moral evil. Natural evil is the result of the laws of the natural world, typically natural disasters, and diseases. Theists and atheists alike must contend with both types of evil; however, they have different approaches.


The term “Theodicy” was first coined by Leibniz and means “vindication of God.” It is to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil, thus resolving the issue of the problem of evil.  Its earliest expression can be found in the thought of Epicurus.

The Epicurean Paradox

Epicurus was an ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 341-270 BCE. He did not agree with the popular Platonist teachings of his day and founded his own school of philosophy called “The Garden.” Like most Greek citizens of his time, Epicurus did believe in the existence of deities. However, he did not believe in divine providence, which is the idea that everything in the universe falls under divine control. It is in wrestling with the concept of divine providence that Epicurus takes up the problem of evil. His formulation of the basic questions is called the Epicurean Paradox and may have looked something 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?”

Ponder if you will…

As you read each of the defenses to the problem of evil, think about how each one is dealing with these four assumptions.

Which assumptions are being accepted?

Which assumptions are being rejected?

Is there any way to reconcile the problem of evil with all four assumptions?

We find the same issue in the 19th-century Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  Read this emotional indictment of a God that brother Ivan Karamazov shares with his brother Alyosha, a Christian monk.

Excerpts from Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov

“But I’ve still better things about children.  I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children, Alyosha.  There was a little girl of five who was hated by her father and mother, ‘most worthy and respectable people, of good education and breeding.’ You see.  I must repeat again, it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only.  To all other types of humanity these torturers behave mildly and benevolently, like cultivated and humane Europeans; but they are very fond of tormenting children, even fond of children themselves in that sense.  It’s just their defenselessness that tempts the tormentor, just the angelic confidence of the child who has no refuge and no appeal, that sets his vile blood on fire.  In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden – the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain, the demon of diseases that follow on vice, gout, kidney disease, and so on.

“This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents.  They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise.  Then, they went to greater refinements of cruelty – shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement, and it was her mother, her mother did this.  And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to death, kind God to protect her?  Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice?  Do you understand why the infamy must be and is permitted?  Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil.  Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child’s prayer to ‘dear, kind God’! I say nothing of the sufferings of grown-up people, they have eaten the apple, damn them, and the devil take them all!  But these little ones!  I am making you suffer, Alyosha, you are not yourself.  I’ll leave off if you like.”

“Never mind. I want to suffer too,” muttered Alyosha.

“One picture, only one more, because it’s so curious, so characteristic, and I have only just read it in some collection of Russian antiquities.  I’ve forgotten the name.  I must look it up.  It was in the darkest days of serfdom at the beginning of the century, and long live the Liberator of the People!  There was in those days a general of aristocratic connections, the owner of great estates, one of those men – somewhat exceptional.  I believe, even then – who, retiring from the service into a life of leisure, are convinced that they’ve earned absolute power over the lives of their subjects.  There were such men then.  So our general, settled on his property of two thousand souls, lives in pomp, and domineers over his poor neighbors as though they were dependents and buffoons.  He has kennels of hundreds of hounds and nearly a hundred dog-boys – all mounted, and in uniform.  One day a serf-boy, a little child of eight, threw a stone in play and hurt the paw of the general’s favorite hound.  ‘Why is my favorite dog lame?’  He is told that the boy threw a stone that hurt the dog’s paw.  ‘So you did it.’  The general looked the child up and down.  ‘Take him.’  He was taken – taken from his mother and kept shut up all night. Early that morning the general comes out on horseback, with the hounds, his dependents, dog-boys, and huntsmen, all mounted around him in full hunting parade.  The servants are summoned for their edification, and in front of them all stands the mother of the child.  The child is brought from the lock-up.  It’s a gloomy, cold, foggy autumn day, a capital day for hunting.  The general orders the child to be undressed; the child is stripped naked.  He shivers, numb with terror, not daring to cry …. ‘Make him run,’ commands the general.  ‘Run! run! shout the dog-boys.  The boy runs …. ‘At him!’ yells the general, and he sets the whole pack of hounds on the child.  The hounds catch him, and tear him to pieces before his mother’s eyes! … I believe the general was afterwards declared incapably of administering his estates.  Well – what did he deserve? To be shot? To be shot for the satisfaction of our moral feelings?  Speak, Alyosha!”

“To be shot,” murmured Alyosha, lifting his eyes to Ivan with a pale, twisted smile.

“Bravo!” cried Ivan, delighted.  “If even you say so …. You’re a pretty monk! So there is a little devil sitting in your heart, Alyosha Karamazov!

“What I said was absurd, but – ”

“That’s just the point, that ‘but’!” cried Ivan.  “Let me tell you, novice, that the absurd is only too necessary on earth.  The world stands on absurdities, and perhaps nothing would have come to pass in it without them.  We know what we know!”

“What do you know?”

“I understand nothing,” Ivan went on, as though in delirium.  “I don’t want to understand anything now, I want to stick to the fact, I made up my mind long ago not to understand.  If I try to understand anything, I shall be false to the fact, and I have determined to stick to the fact.”

“Why are you trying me?” Alyosha cried, with sudden distress.  “Will you say what you mean at last?”

“Of course, I will; that’s what I’ve been leading up to.  You are dear to me.  I don’t want to let you go, and I won’t give you up to your Zossima.”

Ivan for a minute was silent, his face became all at once very sad.

“Listen!  I took the case of children only to make my case clearer.  Of the other tears of humanity with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its center, I will say nothing.  I have narrowed my subject on purpose.  I am a bug, and I recognize in all humility that I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is. … I must have justice, or I will destroy myself.  And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. … Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please?  It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony.

…Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’

… I want to forgive, I want to embrace.  I don’t want more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.  I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs!  She dare not forgive him!  Let her forgive him for herself, if she will, let her forgive the torturer for the immeasurable suffering of her mother’s heart.  But the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive; she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him!  And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony?  Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive?  I don’t want harmony.  From love for humanity I don’t want i.  I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering, I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it.  And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible.  And that I am doing.  It’s not God that I don’t accept.  Alyosha, only I most respectful return Him the ticket” (Dostoyevsky, Brothers KaramazovProject Gutenberg).

The problem of evil rests on a set of assumptions that are evident in the Epicurean Paradox.

Assumption 1: There is a God/deity/supreme being

Assumption 2: God is good

Assumption 3: God is omnipotent

Assumption 4: Evil/suffering exist


At first glance, these assumptions do indeed seem to form a paradox. They seemingly cannot all be true at the same time. In order to deal with the paradox, various thinkers throughout the ages have found it necessary to reject one or more of these assumptions.

Atheistic Defenses

Let’s start by looking at a couple of common atheistic defenses to the problem of evil. One approach is to apply Occam’s Razor to the problem and simply reject Assumption #1. Using this approach, the atheist can simply say that evil and suffering exist because there is no God. However, this still leaves the atheist to reconcile the existence of moral and natural evils in the world.

Another example of an atheistic defense comes from the Buddha. According to the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, the first noble truth is the truth of suffering. The fact that suffering is part of life is foundational to Buddhist teachings. It is our human attachment to things, routines, and ideas that cause what we perceive as suffering and evil. Only by fostering a proper mindset can we free ourselves from this state of being. The Buddha also rejected Assumption #1 but reconciles the existence of evil and suffering as a natural part of the world and human nature.

Theistic Defenses

The theist is faced with an even greater challenge for they must reconcile the existence of moral and natural evil with the existence of God. How can a perfectly good, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful deity (omni-God) allow this level of evil and suffering? Shouldn’t a good, loving, powerful God make the world a better place? There are no easy answers to these questions, and humanity has been wrestling with them throughout recorded history. Arguments that seek to explain the coexistence of both God and evil are often called theophanies.

One very ancient theistic defense to the problem of evil is called the Result of Sin defense. This is a very ancient and very childlike view of reward and punishment. Basically, the Result of Sin defense states that if something bad has happened to you then it must be a divine punishment for some sin that has been committed. Although this explanation for the problem of evil is thousands of years old, it is still in use today. The problem with the Result of Sin defense is that it does not adequately address innocent suffering. There is much suffering and evil in the world today that seems to be undeserved. The Result of Sin defense addresses the four assumptions by rejecting Assumption #2, God is good. In this view, God is not omni-benevolent.

Another theistic defense is called the Greater Good defense. According to the Greater Good argument, God allows a certain amount of suffering and evil in the world in order to achieve a greater good that only God can perceive. In this view, God is omnipotent (all-powerful) but God is not omni-benevolent. The implication here is that God’s plans must be accomplished regardless of who or what gets hurt in the process. As with the Result of Sin defense, the Greater Good argument does not deal with innocent suffering in a satisfactory way.

Ponder if you will…

Which of these defenses do you think deals best with moral evil?

Which defenses deal best with natural evils?

Are there any that do a good job with both types of evil?

A third theistic defense that is very popular is called the Free Will defense. First articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo in the 4th century CE, this argument states that evil and suffering are the result of human free will. According to this view, God created humans with the capacity for free will and cannot (or will not) interfere with that free will. Thus, humans often act dishonorably and immorally. The Free Will defense, therefore, rejects Assumption #3, that God is all-powerful. Free will is the one thing God cannot or will not control. One weakness of this defense is that it does not adequately explain the evil and suffering that have nothing to do with human free will. There are plenty of instances where we can point to someone’s misuse of their free will as the cause of suffering and evil, but there are many more instances where we cannot identify this type of causality.

Yet another defense that is very ancient is called Spiritual Purification. In this view, suffering and evil should be sought out because they are a necessary path to salvation. According to the Spiritual Purification argument, God uses suffering to do some kind of work in the sufferer, to create a virtue of some kind that was missing or insufficient. Only when the sufferer has developed a sufficient amount of virtue via suffering can they be redeemed by God. This is another view where Assumption #2 is being rejected. God is not good, but God is all-powerful and evil and suffering are necessary in order to redeem the world. The Spiritual Purification defense, like many others, once again leaves us struggling to explain innocent suffering.

These four defenses are not all of the defenses to the problem of evil that have been articulated by theists over the centuries. There are many more. However, these four will give you some idea of the thought processes that philosophers and theologians have engaged in when trying to reconcile the problem of evil. The difficulty that any explanation for the problem of evil must overcome is that it must address both moral and natural evil. Any explanation must also address innocent suffering as well as that of the guilty. As of now, few theodicies come close to being so all-encompassing and we cannot apply any of these theistic defenses rigidly in every situation. Right now, each of these defenses is at best a partial solution.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Theodicy Arguments

Theodicies provide logical possible explanations for evil and help people to hold on to the idea that God has a reason for pain and suffering.

These arguments can sustain the idea of a God who is perfectly good, all-loving, and all-powerful, even in the face of the reality of the world’s pain.

They support the statements of many religious texts with philosophical argumentation.

On the other hand, no Theodicy argument fully satisfies. It seems that the idea of actual evil is very hard to reconcile with the classic understanding of God.

Theodicies have difficulty justifying the extremity of evil we see in this world.

Theodicies often twist logic in order to appeal to a religious audience.  Often the begin with the assumptions of Monotheism and attempt to justify what seem to be atrocious actions of God.

Works Cited

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov, Project Gutenberg, 12 Mar. 2009, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/28054/28054-h/28054-h.htm.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book