The Problem of Evil: An Overview
of Some of the Major Issues
Barry L. Whitney
issues are as significant and few as perplexing as the problem
of evil, commonly referred to as “theodicy,” a term coined by Leibniz in 1710 (Leibniz-Huggard 1952) by conflating two Greek words, theos (God) and dike (justice). Theodicy, then, is the defense of the justice of God, specifically with respect to reconciling belief in God with evil and suffering. Theologians and philosophers continue to make progress in the ongoing discussions, focusing on the many complex issues involved. Few claim that the problem can be resolved with complete confidence, despite protests by anti-theodicists who contend that theodicy claims too much and is too complex and abstract.
being a central theological issue, the problem of evil also
has significant existential relevance, for no one is immune
from suffering. Not surprisingly, the problem has long been
the main argument -- the only formidable argument -- against
belief in God. Those who reject theistic belief do so largely
because such belief, allegedly, is irreconcilable with evil.
Those who believe in God, on the other hand, acknowledge
that life’s inevitable tragedies and suffering can severely challenge belief.
religions like Christianity, the theodicy problem differs
from non-monotheistic religions in its conception and attempted
resolutions. Christianity believes in a God who is the sole
creator and sustainer of all that exists and who governs
with a providential care that, nonetheless, permits evils
for morally justifiable reasons. As such, Christian monotheism
cannot explain suffering by utilizing the explanations found
in non-monotheistic religions, ideologies or movements. Evil
cannot be explained, for example, as the product of bad karma
accumulated in past reincarnations, nor as an illusion of
human ignorance, unaware of the oneness and goodness of all
existence. Nor can evil be explained as the result of combative
cosmic powers of good and evil or from the conflict between
matter and spirit. In sum, evil cannot be explained by denying
God’s oneness, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, or omniscience. For Christian thinkers, to be sure, there is a distinction to be made between denying traditional Christian understandings of the divine attributes and reinterpreting them, as do process theists, open theists, and the Irenaean theodicy of John Hick. There are significant differences, furthermore, among the respective theodicies of these contemporary reinterpretations of Christianity. This is the case also with the traditional theodicies, for there are important differences among the Augustinian, Thomist, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Orthodox theodicies. Accordingly, many complex and unresolved conflicts among the contemporary and traditional theodicies remain.
for Christian discussions of theodicy is (or ought to be)
the Bible, the divinely inspired revelation that grounds
Christian beliefs and doctrines. While there is no systematic,
formalized theodicy in Scripture, there are valuable insights
into the origin of evil, its conquest by Christ, and various
explanations as to why God allows (or causes) suffering.
Evils, for example, are said to be permitted by God to bring
about greater goods, not otherwise attainable. Some evils
(though not all) may be God’s punishment; others may be educational discipline, warnings or tests of faith. Evils may provide opportunities for spiritual growth, and evils may have redemptive value when understood in the light of Christ’s atonement, since Christ’s cross and resurrection have transformed and defeated evils and death. Biblical teaching also provides the consolation of an immortal life free of suffering, at least for those whom God saves (Whitney 1998, 255-80). Theological reflection of these biblical teachings continues, along with other discussions that focus more on the philosophical issues centered on theism per
se, rather than specifically on Christian theism, Scripture and theological doctrine.
has been a marked resurgence of publications on theodicy
during the past several decades. More than 4,300 books and
articles in English alone were published between the late
1950s and the early 1990s. These publications have been categorized
and listed in my Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography (Whitney
1998). Among the numerous issues discussed, one prominent
theme has been the distinction between moral and physical
evils, and the means whereby each is reconciled with belief
in God. The problem of evil is in fact the
problem of suffering caused by evil, since evils bring
about suffering not only from physical pain in injury and
disease but also frIom moral,
psychological and spiritual suffering.
evils refer to humanity’s sinful acts and vices
-- envy, greed, conceit, cruelty, violence and countless
other examples of the inhumanity displayed by human beings
toward one another and toward non-human creatures and the
environment. Such evils often foster social
evils -- exploitation, environmental degradation, alienation
and poverty, etc. While these evils are attributed largely
to the misuse of human free will, there has been much controversy
about the complex issues involved in discussions about free
will. There are, for example, not only philosophical controversies
but major theological differences between traditional and
contemporary liberal theological perspectives about the nature
of free will. There are also many related issues, including
opposing interpretations of divine power and interventions
(miracles), the source of evil (original sin, evolution,
etc.) (Joviet and Whitney 2002, 488), the traditional definition
of evil as privatio boni, and Satan’s role in provoking or
causing suffering, etc.
(natural) evils are displayed in the endless variety of diseases
and in the havoc wreaked by arbitrary forces of nature, the
misnomered “acts of God” --
hurricanes, droughts, famines, floods, and animal
the latter having been largely ignored until fairly recently
(Whitney 1989, 107-14). Metaphysical
evil likewise has been
largely ignored, although this neglect is due, most likely,
to the widespread view that this definition of evil is incompatible
with Christian beliefs (Joviet and Whitney 2002, 488). In
response to the suffering brought on by physical evils, the
necessity of stable laws is cited most often as the common
explanation in defense of God’s creation of such a world
and the apparent lack of divine intervention; stable natural
laws are essential for life to exist (Reichenbach 1982) and
essential for human free will and moral goods (Swinburne
1991). The suffering to human and non-human creatures caused
by physical evils arises from the inevitable side effects
of these laws.
the controversies about natural evil currently being debated
are those that arise from the conservative-liberal disagreement
about the fall of Adam and the doctrine of original sin as
the precursor of both moral and physical evils (Joviet and
Whitney, 2002, 488): the challenge of evolutionary theory,
in particular, has prompted many to seek alternative explanations
to traditional theodicies. Another main focus of discussion
is the amount and intensity of natural evils and questions
about whether or not God should have created a different
kind of world, one with different laws that would have resulted
in less suffering, or whether God should intervene (or, some
would say, intervene more) against the worst natural and
moral evils. Among the theodicies of natural evils, Hick’s
Irenaean perspective has been the most influential (Hick
2007, Whitney 1998, 115-34I), yet other important discussions
include those of Bruce Reichenbach, Richard Swinburne and
Austin Farrer (Whitney 1998, 91-114; 1989, 64-69).
major focus in the contemporary theodicy discussions has
been the challenge of and responses to the so-called logical
problem of evil (also referred to as the deductive or a priori
problem). This challenge likely has been the main impetus
for the resurgence of interest in theodicy in academia during
the past several decades, although there were other factors,
the “century of blood,” in particular, that witnessed two
hundred million deaths from warfare and dictatorships (including
six million deaths in the Nazi Holocaust). There have been
historical precursors of the logical problem of evil (Epicurus,
David Hume, and others), but John L. Mackie’s contemporary
formulation has been the most influential presentation of
the challenge, alleging the irrationality of belief in the
God of western Christianity. The traditional understanding
of God as omnipotence and omnibenevolence, he claimed, is
logically inconsistent with evil (Mackie 1955). Against this
formidable challenge, the most influential response has been
Alvin Plantinga’s powerfully reworked free will defense in
which he demonstrated, by means of the complex logic of contingency
and necessity, that the alleged inconsistency insisted upon
by Mackie and others cannot be substantiated (Plantinga 1974).
a consensus among scholars that credits Plantinga’s
defense as resolving the logical challenge, or at the very
least as having produced a stalemate (Whitney 1998, 18-51),
controversy remains. Many regard Plantinga’s defense as
problematic since, for example, he avoids a full-fledged
theodicy by unduly limiting his response to the defensive
maneuver of refuting the logical challenge. Acknowledging
that his defense need not be true, probable or even plausible
is a strategy rejected by many who are of the opinion that
a theodicy is needed, not merely a possible defense against
a limited challenge. Unlike a defense, a theodicy seeks
to provide grounds for a plausible, cogent Christian explanation
for the reconciliation of God and evil, an explanation that
is regarded as necessary in light of our increasingly secular
and multicultural society that no longer assumes the Christian
worldview (Griffin 1991, 42). While Plantinga’s defense
assumes the Reformed epistemological and apologetic approach,
the evidentialist approach more closely resembles the function
of theodicy (see Peterson, et al 138-39). A case in point
is Plantinga’s controversial extension of the free will
defense from humanity’s free choices as the cause of moral
evils to the freedom of non-human agents (demonic fallen
angels) as the possible cause of physical evils. Also controversial
is the contentious theory of middle knowledge (Molinism)
utilized by Plantinga’s free will defense: most other free
will defenses (and theodicies) are independent of that theory
(Hasker 2008, 55-73). Further, free will defenses (and theodicies)
must acknowledge and respond more directly to the denial
of free will by contemporary social scientists and compatibilist
philosophers. The issue of theological compatibilism also
remains problematic. Theological compatibilists (Catholic
and Calvinist, etc.) disagree fundamentally with Plantinga’s
incompatibilist assumptions (see Hasker 2008, 147-66; Boyd
2001 and 2003; Griffin 1976; Whitney 1998, 281-315).
this context, process theists reject the apparent threat
to genuine human freedom by traditional compatibilist views
of strong divine omnipotence, contending rather that God’s
power is best understood as persuasive love than as coercive,
determining power; divine omniscience likewise is interpreted
as non-predeterministic (Whitney 1998, 135-75). Open theism
(“free will theism”) concurs that divine power is not best
understood as compatibilistic but, rather, that genuine
human freedom is made possible by the self-limitation of
God’s power (Hasker-Griffin 2000). Hick’s Irenaean theodicy
likewise emphases human freedom over an all-determining
divine power. Important discussions, accordingly, continue
among these contemporary theists and philosophers and the
defenders of traditional theism.
and more recent formulation of the problem of evil has become
prominent in the theodicy discussions, a challenge due largely
to the work of William Rowe (Rowe 1979, etc.). The so-called
evidential (or inductive, a posteriori, existential)
problem of evil concedes that the logical problem
has been unsuccessful in showing that belief in God is irrational,
yet proposes that belief in God nonetheless is implausible,
given the experiential evidence of the amount, intensity
and apparent gratuitousness of many evils. Rowe makes this
point by means of his now infamous examples of the lingering
death of a fawn burned in a forest fire (gratuitous physical
evil) and a child brutally abused and killed (gratuitous
moral evil). Rowe’s argumentation concludes that these and
countless other instances of meaningless suffering constitute
strong evidence against belief in a God.
have explored various options in response to this challenge.
Many reject the reality of gratuitous evils, thereby directly
contradicting the evidentialist’s assumption that such evils exist and
count against belief in God. The evidentialist challenge,
further, is blunted by the fact that the existence (or non-existence)
of gratuitous evils cannot be demonstrated: to do so is
beyond our cognitive limitations (see Wykstra 1984). Yet
the challenge remains problematic: theists still must explain
why God would allow such evils, at least in general terms.
Here, traditional theism, grounded in a strong view of divine
sovereignty, denies the reality of gratuitous evils, regarding
all evils as caused or permitted by God for morally justifiable
reasons, that is, making possible the greater goods that
otherwise would not be attainable. Yet, since it is difficult
to understand what greater goods, if any, result from the
evils that apparently are meaningless, many theists now
accept the reality of gratuitous evils. This is a radical
move, but one that acknowledges the evidential abundance
and intensity of evils that apparently are gratuitous. This
acknowledgement may result also from a rejection (as in
process theism and open theism) of the traditional “blueprint” view
of God’s sovereignty (Boyd 2001, 2003), namely, the theological
determinism in which all evils have divine justification.
For many contemporary non-traditional theists, gratuitous
evils are understood as meaningless and yet as inevitable
in a world of significantly free creatures who cause moral
evils, and natural laws that give rise not only to goods
but to evil side effects, some of which are inevitably gratuitous.
continue, however, about whether the “risk
taking” God of open theism (Hasker 2004 and 2008) or the
solely persuasive God of process theism (Whitney 1998,
135-75) are sufficient in power to maintain control over
creation’s free creatures and natural laws, and to insure
the final overcoming of evil. On the other hand, debates
continue also about the validity of the traditional views
of divine attributes, especially omnipotence. Traditional
theologians continue to defend the theodicies based on
strong views of divine sovereignty, including various versions
of predestination (Thomist, Molinist, Calvinist, etc.)
(Whitney 1989, 70-74 and 1998, 281-303).
Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil, 2001.
Is God to Blame?, 2003.
David Griffin, God, Power and Evil, 1976, 2004.
David Griffin and William. Hasker, “Debate on Theodicy,” Process
Studies 29 (2000), 193-226.
William Hasker, The Triumph of God
over Evil, 2008.
----. Providence, Evil
and the Openness of God, 2005.
John Hick, “An Irenaean Theodicy,” Encountering
Evil, ed. S. Davis, 1981, 38-72.
-----. Evil and the God
of Love, 1966, 1985.
G. F. W. Leibniz, Theodicy, 1710, transl.
E.M. Huggard, 1952.
John Mackie, ”Evil and Omnipotence,” Mind 64 (1955), 200-12.
Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach,
and David Basinger, Reason and Religious
Belief, 1990, 2003.
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil, 1974, 1977.
Evil and a Good God, 1982.
William. Rowe, “The Problem of Evil
and Some Varieties of Atheism,” Philosophical
Quarterly 16 (1979), 335-41.
Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 1969.
Barry Whitney, What are they Saying About
God and Evil?, 1989.
-----. Theodicy: An Annotated Bibliography
on the Problem of Evil, 1960-1991, Expanded Edition, 1998.
Barry Whitney and
Robert Joviet, “Evil,” New Catholic Encyclopedia,
Vol. 5, 487-89. See also Barry Whitney, "Theodicy," New
Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 13, 867-69.
Stephen Wystra, “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments
from Suffering,” International Journal for
the Philosophy of Religion 16 (1984): 73-94.
L. Whitney, 2011. A version of this article is published
in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, John Knox/Westmnster Press, 2013.