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The Problem of Evil: An Overview of Some of the Major Issues
Barry L. Whitney

Few theological 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.

Besides 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.

In monotheistic 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.

The basis 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.

There 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.

Moral 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.

Physical (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 suffering, 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.

Among 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).

Another 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).

Despite 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).

In 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.

A second 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.

Theists 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.

The debates 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).

Works Cited

Gregory 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.

Bruce Reichenbach, 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.

©Barry L. Whitney, 2011. A version of this article is published in The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, John Knox/Westmnster Press, 2013.