Religious Studies

The Problem of Evil

Jim Riley

1st March 2015

John Hick defined evil as “physical pain, mental suffering and moral wickedness" For Hick, the consequence of evil is suffering


The apparent malfunctioning of the natural world e.g. diseases and natural disasters


The result of human immorality e.g. genocide


The monotheistic God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam assumes the divine qualities of omnipotence, omniscience and omni benevolence. However, the existence of evil and suffering in the world provides a challenge to the loving God of classical theism.


Augustine, in his book 'Confessions,' recognised this problem:

“Either God is not able to abolish evil or not willing; if he is not able then he is not all-powerful, if he is not willing then he is not all-good."


The problem of evil can be viewed as an inconsistent triad:
[insert pic]
The three are logically inconsistent. If God is omnipotent, he is aware of the existing evil and suffering and knows how to put a stop to it. If God is omni benevolent he will want to put a stop to it. Yet evil and suffering does exist.


The atheist David Hume argued that only three possibilities exist:

I. God is not omnipotent
II. God is not omni benevolent
III. Evil does not exist

Since we have sufficient direct experience to support the existence of evil, if God exists he is either an impotent God or a malicious God; not the God of classical theism. Hume concluded that God therefore does not exist.


Antony Flew wrote that the biggest challenge to the believer is accepting that the existence of evil and suffering is a major problem that demands an adequate response. The problem faced by monotheists demands a solution, not of qualification; in which the nature of God is arbitrarily changed to suit different circumstances – this concept of God 'dies the death of a thousand qualifications,' but by the rational justification of God's right to allow evil and suffering to continue despite his ability to stop it.


Aquinas argued that God's goodness is infinitely different to human goodness (although he does maintain that both have points of correspondence). Therefore, it is conceivable that God allows evil and suffering to exist as a part of his greater plan of love. Different theodicies have thus developed – logical theories that justify the existence of evil and suffering usually on the basis that they are a necessary condition of God's greater plan.


Based on the narratives of Genesis 1-3, Augustine's theodicy argues that God created the world and it was perfect, without the existence of evil or suffering.

Genesis 1:31: “God saw all that he had made and saw that it was very good"

Augustine defined evil as the privation of goodness, just as blindness is a privation of sight. Since evil is not an entity in itself, just like blindness is not an entity in itself, God could not have created it.

The existence of evil originates from free will possessed by angels and humans, who turned their back on God and settled for a lesser form of goodness thus creating a privation of goodness as the narrative of 'the fall' in Genesis 3 tries to explain. As a result the state of perfection was ruined by sin.

Natural Evil: Occurred because of the loss of order in nature, defined by Augustine as the 'penal consequences of sin'
Moral Evil: Derived from human free will and disobedience

Augustine reasoned that all humans are worthy of the punishment of evil and suffering because we are “seminally present in the loins of Adam"' deserving of the punishment for original sin.

God has the right not to intervene and put a stop to evil and suffering since he is a just God and we are worthy of punishment. It is by his grace and infinite love however, that we are able to accept his offer of salvation and eternal life in heaven.


One of the principal critics of the Augustinian Theodicy is F.D.E Schleiermacher. He argued that it was a logical contradiction to make the claim that a perfectly created world went wrong since this implies that evil created itself ex nihilno which is a logical contradiction. Either the world was not perfect to start with or God made it go wrong – if this is the case it is God and not humans who are to blame and the existence of evil is not justified.

If the world was perfect and there was no knowledge of good and evil, how could Adam and Eve have the freedom to disobey God if goodness and evil were as yet unknown? The disobedience of Adam and Eve and the angels implies that there already was knowledge of good and evil. Augustine's interpretation of the tree of knowledge therefore is questionable.

Augustine's view is also inconsistent with the theory of evolution which asserts that the universe began in chaos and is continually developing, not diminishing over time.

Augustine's view that every human in seminally present in the loins Adam is biologically inaccurate and the question can be raised; is God really justified in allowing punishment of one human being for the sin of another human being?


Like Augustine, Irenaeus argued that evil is the consequence of human free will and disobedience. However, unlike Augustine Irenaeus believed that God was partly responsible for evil and suffering. Irenaeus argued that God created the world imperfectly so that imperfect immature beings could develop through a soul-making process into a 'child of God,' in his perfect likeness.

For Irenaeus, God could not have created humans in perfect likeness of himself because attaining the likeness of God requires the willing co-operation of humans. God thus had to give humans free will in order for them to be able to willingly co-operate. Since freedom requires the ability to choose good over evil, God had to permit evil and suffering to occur.

Natural Evil: Has the divine purpose to develop qualities such as compassion through the soul-making process
Moral Evil: Derived from human free will and disobedience

Irenaeus concluded that eventually evil and suffering will be overcome and humans will develop into a perfect likeness of God, and everyone will have eternal life in heaven.


John Hick highlighted the importance of God allowing humans to develop themselves. He reasoned that if God made us perfect, then we would have the goodness of robots, which would love God automatically without any further deliberation. God wants humans to be genuinely loving and therefore gives them free will.

If God interfered or became to close, humans would be unable to make a free choice and thus would not benefit from the developmental process. This is known as the counterfactual hypothesis. Therefore God created humans at an epistemic distance from himself, a distance of knowledge.


• The idea that everyone goes to heaven is not just, it is inconsistent with Orthodox Christianity and 'The Fall' of Genesis 3. It also demotes Jesus' role from 'saviour' to 'moral role model'
• Is the magnitude of suffering really necessary for soul making? e.g. the Holocaust
• D.Z. Phillips in 'The Concept of Prayer' argued that the continuation of evil and suffering is not a demonstration of love from an omni benevolent God


• If life suddenly ceased to exist God would not have achieved his purpose
• The supreme life in Heaven is required in order to justify the amplitude of suffering and evil on earth
• Some 'evil people' cannot be held responsible for their evil actions; for example mentally retarded people


The free-will defence incorporates the notion of free-will underlined in the Augustinian and Irenaen theodicies. The free-will defence is based on the premise that moral evil stems from moral agents, and free agency is a necessary condition for human development. The goodness of free agency outweighs the evil derived from free moral agents.

Supporters of the free-will defence argue that divine intervention would compromise human freedom thus preventing human development.

Swinburne used the example of death – death brings about suffering but is necessary to ensure humans take their responsibilities seriously.

Swinburne wrote: 'If there is always a second chance there is no risk.'


The question can be raised – is the magnitude of suffering really necessary for human development? Hick however argued that either we demand a world free of evil and suffering in which there would be no free-will or we accept the world as it is now. If we say that some evils are too great then we begin to go down a scale of evils until even the slightest evil becomes too great e.g. if we say cancer is too severe, what about heart disease, flu or even a headache.

Some argue that God could have created free agents without risking bringing evil and suffering into the world - there is nothing logically inconsistent about a free agent that always chooses goodness over evil. However, Hick argued that is such a case humans would not be truly free since their actions would have been decided before they came into existence, even if they were under the illusion that they were acting freely.

If I had the chance to prevent a murder from happening but chose to let it happen I could not use the free-will defence to justify my inaction. It would be unacceptable for a human being to argue that they were right in not preventing the murder, even if they were able to, simply because they wanted to preserve the free-will of the murderer. So why should this justification be more acceptable coming from God?

Jim Riley

Jim co-founded tutor2u alongside his twin brother Geoff! Jim is a well-known Business writer and presenter as well as being one of the UK's leading educational technology entrepreneurs.

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