Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Logical Problem of Evil

Evil: it is all around us, in the starvation of South African children, in the displacement of families evicted by monstrous hurricanes, in the domestic abuse of women by their husbands, and in the death of our closest friends and family. It is perhaps the ubiquity of the problem that makes us take it so seriously. This is not one of your typical philosophical or metaphysical conundrums, which tend to remain purely academic endeavors. We all know this problem. Every instance of pain and suffering in the world is but a bitter reminder. Who in this world has not looked with puzzlement towards the sky and wondered, “Why did that have to happen?”

Yet despite all this, Christians believe that God is still all-good, all-powerful, and all wise. How can this be? There seems to be a contradiction here between the evils we experience and what we know about God. If God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good, why is there evil in the world?

There is a logical syllogism at work here that non-believers use to invalidate the existence of God, and it has been articulated in various ways. Some examples include[1]:

1. If one of two contraries is infinite, the other is completely destroyed.
2. But “God” means infinite goodness.
3. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable in the world.
4. But there is evil
5. Therefore God does not exist (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, 2, 3, obj. I)


1. If God is all-good, he would will all good and no evil.
2. And if God were all-powerful, he would accomplish everything he wills.
3. But evil exists as well as good.
4. Therefore either God is not all-powerful, or not all-good, or both (St. Augustine)


1. If God is all-good, he wants his creatures to be happy.
2. And if he is all-powerful, he can do whatever he wants.
3. But the creatures are not happy.
4. Therefore God lacks either goodness or power or both (C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain).

I will approach the problem in light of the following formulation by Peter Kreeft, a Christian philosopher and professor at Boston College:
There seems to be a logical contradiction built in to affirming all four of the following propositions:
1. God exists
2. God is all-good
3. God is all-powerful
4. Evil exists
Affirm any three and you must deny the fourth, it seems.
If God exists, wills all-good, and is powerful enough to get everything he wills, then there would be no evil.
If God exists and wills only good, but evil exists, then God does not get what he wills. Thus he is not all-powerful.
If God exists and is all-powerful and evil exists too, then God wills evil to exist. Thus he is not all-good.
Finally, if “God” means “a being who is both all-good and all-powerful,” and nevertheless evil exists, then such a God does not exist.[2]
There are many ways to solve this problem. The “cheap”[3] answers solve it by denying one of the four premises. Biblical theism is the only system that attempts to simultaneously affirm all four and is thus the more intellectually intriguing approach. The arguments from biblical theism are the ones that will be presented here.

What is crucial to the argument is the proper definition of terms. The existence of evil and the simultaneous existence of an all-good and an all-powerful God is not contradictory or logically inconsistent once we truly understand the elements in question and how they relate to each other.

One of the greatest contributions of biblical theism is the understanding of evil as a privation of good, and not as a being of itself:

Evil does not consist in a simple negation…Rather, it consists in a privation, i.e., in the fact that a certain being lacks a good it requires to enjoy the integrity of its nature. While this implies that evil is non-being, it does not imply that evil is nonexistent…[W]hen we say that evil “is” or “exists,” the predicate does not signify being: it means simply the reality of a lack or of a defect.[4]
If evil were a being that God created, then we could not say that He was good. But, if evil is a privation of good, then all that He created remains good. But if things are not evil in themselves, where is the evil? “It is in the will, the choice, the intent, the movement of the soul, which puts a wrong order into the physical world of things and acts.”[5] Or, put another way, “evil is a wrong choice, or the damage done by a wrong choice.”[6]

Furthermore, when we speak of evil we must distinguish between two different kinds—moral and physical—each one demanding an explanation. “Physical evil is that affecting a nature, i.e., a being defined by an essence or by an ensemble of properties. It…can be attributed to any nature, corporeal or spiritual, whose integrity it alters.”[7] This is important to understand because people often misidentify physical evils. For example, natural disasters like earthquakes and typhoons are considered “physical evils.” But, the evil is not in the earthquake itself. After all, an earthquake is merely the result of natural laws that govern fault lines and tectonic plates. Instead, the evil is in the suffering that accidentally follows as a result of these natural laws playing themselves out. So, what we see here is that the problem is with suffering, not with the things that cause it. “Among living things, natural evil consists in suffering, both physical and moral, that destroys emotional harmony and equilibrium, which constitute the proper perfection of a sensible being as such.” The problem of suffering will be treated in due time.

The other type of evil is moral evil. “Moral evil, consisting essentially in the disorder of the will, is called fault or sin.”[8] It is “a privation of rectitude required by the natural law, a privation affecting a free will, which through its own fault lacks a perfection it ought to have.”[9] This understanding is crucial to solving the problem because it shows that man is responsible for evil, not the Lord. God does not create sin. Instead, sin (and other evils such as selfishness, greed, pride, jealousy, wrath, etc.) is the result of a turning away from the Lord that man freely chooses.

With this, the objector most likely replies: If the origin of evil is free will, and God is the origin of free will, is not God then the origin of evil? It is true that the Lord set up a scenario that makes evil possible, but he is not the cause of it. He established the conditions, but man is the cause. Of course, some would take the Lord to task even for this, demanding that not even the potential for evil exist. To this the biblical theist says, “It must exist!” In order to eliminate this potential, God must take away man’s ability to choose the Lord for himself. But, free will is a good, a perfection.[10] Without it, we would be forced and determined creatures, like robots, or brute animals. More importantly, there would be no love, which itself constitutes a free choice to give of oneself to another. We can not have the ability to choose, and to love, and to determine our own lives without also having the potential to sin and thus bring evil into the world.

Now, back to this suffering we mentioned earlier. Am I just stuck with it now? In the midst of the utmost heartache and pain, am I supposed to find solace in the fact that evil is a privation and that it is all my fault? What a woeful life one must lead, who believes in this all-good and all-powerful God! Fortunately, there are solutions even for this seemingly hopeless situation.

For one, who is to say that suffering need be a bad thing? We all have examples of times in our lives when we have forged through the proverbial gauntlet and arrived at the end stronger and more self-confident than before. There is a consequent reward and an affirmation that we might not have ever achieved had we not experienced the trial.

The colloquial adage “you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone” speaks to this same idea. Invariably, when human beings possess a good for too long they take it for granted and thus require some momentary (or even prolonged) suffering to remind them of how fortunate they are and to give thanks to God, which is to their benefit.

Perhaps most importantly, suffering, when seen as the result of sin, is actually good on two counts[11]: one, because it acts as the just punishment for sin (would you demand that sin go unpunished?), and two, because it can be the means through which man atones for sin, if he enters into it willingly and with the intention of making up for what he has done. Suffering, then, is not evil, and God not an evil God, if so much good can and does come from it.

Finally, we must keep in mind that man approaches this suffering and this problem of evil, from a terribly short-sighted position. As creatures, bound by time, we can only see what lies before us. It is thus often difficult for us to see what good could possibly come from what currently ails us, or what merit could possibly come from enduring the pain. Peter Kreeft relates an example of this from his own life, and it is worth quoting in full:
I remember when one of my daughters was about four or five years old and she was trying to thread a needle in Brownies. It was very difficult for her. Every time she tried, she hit herself in the finger and a couple of times she bled. I was watching her, but she didn’t see me. She just kept trying and trying.

My first instinct was to go and do it for her, since I saw a drop of blood. But wisely I held back, because I said to myself, “She can do it.” After about five minutes, she finally did it. I came out of hiding and she said, “Daddy, daddy—look what I did! Look at what I did!” She was so proud she had threaded the needle that she had forgotten all about the pain.

That time the pain was a good thing for her. I was wise enough to have foreseen it was good for her. Now, certainly God is much wiser than I was with my daughter. So it’s at least possible that God is wise enough to foresee that we need some pain for reasons which we may not understand but which he foresees as being necessary to some eventual good. Therefore, he’s not being evil by allowing that pain to exist.
All parents know that if you want what is best for your child, you have to occasionally resist the urge to be kind, or to prevent any instance of pain or discomfort. Though the child may not understand at the time, we know through knowledge and experience that a future good will come from the child’s present suffering. How much more then does God, who is all-good, all-powerful, and all-wise, see the good that comes from suffering in the times when we are blinded by it? How much more then should we trust in Him, who knows what is best for us, and this his only want?

In summary, we have established, through the approach of biblical theism, many ways in which the presence of evil can be reconciled with an all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. These include the following:
  1. Evil is not a thing that has its own being, but is instead a privation of good.
  2. Physical evil does not actually reside in the very causes of the suffering themselves (for example, in kidneys that fail, or in earthquakes), but instead in the very suffering that we incidentally experience.
  3. Sin, or a disordered will, is the cause of moral evil.
  4. Establishing the conditions in which evil may occur is not the same as causing the evil that occurs. God established the conditions. Man caused evil.
  5. God had no other choice but to make the conditions as they were. Free will is a perfection of man. Any possibility of choosing good also carries with it the possibility of choosing evil.
  6. Suffering does not have to be a bad thing. Good can come from it.
  7. We are not in a place to judge the appropriateness of some particular evil or instance of suffering. God, to whom all things are present in one moment, sees the good that can come from all things and, in His goodness, has a noble reason for allowing evil and suffering that we cannot always see from our limited vantage point.

Of course, much more could be said regarding the problem of evil both in the way of objections and responses. I do not propose this as an exhaustive treatment on the matter. But, I do think that we have here at least the beginnings of a response to this most important question. What will you do the next time you are confronted with the problem of evil? Will you simply make concessions, adopting one of the various philosophical systems that forsake one or more of our foundational premises? I for one will fight for that more daring worldview, asserting that amidst the very paradox of life is the source of our ultimate fulfillment.
- - -
[1] Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1994), 128.
[2] Kreeft, 128-129.
[3] Lee Strobel accounts Peter Kreeft’s response in an interview: “‘[Atheism] is an easy answer—maybe, if I may use the word, a cheap answer,’ he said. ‘Atheism is cheap on people, because it snobbishly says nine out of ten people through history have been wrong about God and have had a lie at the core of their hearts’” (Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith [Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000], 35). Kreeft lists pantheism, modern naturalism/ancient polytheism, and idealism as similarly “cheap” worldviews, since they all simply deny one of the four propositions (cf. Kreeft, 129). For daulism, see R. Jolivet, “Evil”, New Catholic Encyclopedia: Vol. IV, Gen. Ed. Catholic University of America (McGraw-Hill: St. Louis, 1967), 667.
[4] R. Jolivet, “Evil”, New Catholic Encyclopedia: Vol. IV, Gen. Ed. Catholic University of America (McGraw-Hill: St. Louis, 1967), 665.
[5] Kreeft, 132.
[6] Peter Kreeft, “The Problem of Evil”, Chapter 7 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 54-58. Online at
[7] Jolivet, 666.
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid., 667.
[10] “free will is undeniably a perfection. And even if man makes ill use of this freedom, God must be praised for having given him the perfection. For it is a perfection to possess self-determination, to conform the self by a decision of the will to the order desired by God, and thus to collaborate in God’s creative activity” (Jolivet, 669).
[11] “Suffering would be absurd if it were useless, if it did not atone for sin, or become the condition for a good. Yet, even in sin, God offers the sinner possibility for good…In this way, divine providence is absolved from blame for evil—if there is mystery, nonetheless there is no injustice” (Jolivet, 670).
[12] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2000), 41.


  1. 7. We are not in a place to judge the appropriateness of some particular evil or instance of suffering. God, to whom all things are present in one moment, sees the good that can come from all things and, in His goodness, has a noble reason for allowing evil and suffering that we cannot always see from our limited vantage point.

    How can you say God experiences all things at one time, yet use the phrase "good that can come" speaking of God seeing the possibilities? I like your understanding of Theodicy, but I think we still need to understand that in a free will the outcome is not always known before it happens. The possibilities are always known, but not what option we will take. The will being self-causing is the start of the agent in determining a cause. To be free means, to some extent, initiate and originate new lines of causation. We can not exhaustively account for decisions by appealing to antecedent causes. If the notion of self-causation is unintelligible, if we can only conceive of free will in compatibilistic sense, then we have to hold that God only has compatibilistic freedom. An unintelligible concept doesnt become intelligible just because we apply it to God. So, unless one is willing to say that all God's decisions are caused by antecedent factors, one has to admit libertarian freedom is intelligible.

    Sorry if I hit a tangent. hit me up brother

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. [i messed up my last comment so i had to delete it and post again]

    i remember now what the large debate at phatmass from way back in the day was all about.

    rev, i'm only an amateur metaphysician, so i don't think i can really hang in this debate. but, for what its worth, i'll give my initial thoughts.

    i don't see anything mutually exclusive about a scenario where God both sees all things as if in an instant and sees the good that can come from every situation. the "can come" is in relation to man and how he experiences time. my point was that we cannot see the future good that comes from our present suffering. But, since God sees all things in an instant, he can see this good. So, he allows us to suffer because of the good that will come from it as it plays out in time.

    i think it is very dangerous to say that God could not know what would come next, depending on the choice that we make. this would mean that he is everyday aquiring new knowledge. but, this cannot be, since God knows ALL things and he is IMMUTABLE and UNCHANGEABLE. he experiences no progression of thought whatsoever. he doesn't actually "come" to know anything. he just knows, for the same reason why he just simply IS.

    also, you seem unwilling to afford God this type of knowledge b/c you think that it limits the will of man. but, i don't see why the knowledge of God has to have that limiting effect (or at least, i don't understand how it could). he knows what we will do, but that does not mean that he also forces us to do it.

    i hope that helps.

    pax christi,


Related Posts with Thumbnails