Historical Introduction to Philosophy/The Problem of Evil

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Reading Questions[edit]

  1. How do concepts change over time?
  2. What was the ancient concept of Evil, and what is its modern counterpart?
  3. Why does the existence of Evil deny the existence of God?


Hellenes is a term for either ancient or modern Greeks (used in this fashion to note that at the time the nation/national identity of Greece did not exist)

B.C.E. Before Common Era.


The problem of evil is not a simple topic, nor is it free from the fetters of religious interpretation and influence. For our purpose we shall begin with the simple aspect of a definition and look at how its concept has evolved, but before we do that we must note that all aspects of ancient philosophy that we have access to today have been translated and interpreted, in some cases, many times before it reaches us. All philosophical thought is based on the search for reasons why and how the world works. These reasons for things are based on observation and then filtered through the observers experiences, thus these reasons develop and evolve based upon the experience or knowledge of those interpreting them. For example concepts such as Metaphysics and Epistemology existed in ancient times but they were not termed as such because there were no terms for them as we know them today. So if we were to talk to an ancient philosopher about their work on "metaphysics," for example, they would have no idea or frame of reference for what we're talking about because that term doesn't exist to them. It has been said by many an atheist that because evil exists there can be no God. This is known as the "Problem of Evil". On the other hand, I believe most people would agree, atheists included, that good is the opposite of evil. If evil proves that God does not exist, then by the same token, the existence of good must prove that God does exist. If hate disproves God, then love proves Him; if violence disproves God, then compassion proves Him; if revenge disproves God, then forgiveness proves Him. There must be an explanation, therefore, of God's co-existence with evil or non-existence in spite of good.

There is perhaps, the possibility that God is a combination of both good and evil (dualism). The atheist's argument does not hold true if God is evil. I would argue, however, that God is the ultimate cause of good and evil, and God is good. While evil is not the doing of God, it is ultimately caused by Him. This is because He is omnipotent, the Supreme Being. Nothing takes place without His knowledge or permission; if it did, then He would not be omnipotent-He would not be God. In the words of the famous apologist, C.S. Lewis, ...Christianity asserts that God is good; that He made all things good and for the sake of their goodness; that one of the good things He made, namely, the free will of rational creatures, by its very nature included the possibility of evil; and that creatures, availing themselves of this possibility, have become evil.

He explained the apparent irony in this way: Is this state of affairs in accordance with God's will or not? If it is, He's a strange God, you'll say: and if it isn't, how can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power?

But anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another. It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, 'I'm not going to go and make you tidy the schoolroom every night. You've got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.' Then she goes up one night and finds the Teddy Bear and the ink and the French Grammar all lying in the grate. That's against her will. She would prefer the children to be tidy. But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy. The same thing arises in any regiment, or trades union, or school. You make a thing voluntary and then half the people don't do it. That isn't what you willed, but your will has made it possible.2 Nevertheless, we must remember that God did not create evil. But God created everything, right? Yes, but evil is not a thing. Evil is real, but it is not a real thing. For example, you might have a weak leg, but it is not the leg itself that is evil, but the weakness. The weakness (evil) is not a thing, but a condition. Thus, God did not create evil; He allows it. Lewis explains that "evil is a parasite, not an original thing. The powers which enable a bad man to be effectively bad are in themselves good things - resolution, cleverness, good looks, existence itself."3

So our problem is this: Why does a good and all powerful God allow evil? First, we must realize that even an omnipotent Being cannot do the impossible. C.S. Lewis once noted that making God the subject of an irrational statement does not make it true. Indeed, God cannot create a square triangle, "undo the past," or make a stone bigger than He can lift. This is the reason why God cannot immediately eliminate evil. For at the same time, He would make it impossible to accomplish other goals which are important to Him.

If God were to suddenly wipe out all traces of evil, free will would be lost, and we would become animals. As animals, we would have the capacity to like God, and to react to Him, but we would not have the capacity to truly love Him. This would defeat the purpose for which man was created. The atheist fails to consider that God may be dealing with evil progressively. If that is the case, and I believe it is, then God is doing as the atheist insists, but He is doing it over a period of time. In the end, God will do away with all evil.

Does free will necessarily involve God letting us do as we please, even if it is contrary to His will? In all practicality, it does. C.S. Lewis explains: We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them.

Evil and Good[edit]

We must first ask the question, “What is evil?” Most modern dictionaries define Evil as morally bad or wrong, wicked, depraved, causing pain harm or trouble. As such it is heavily bound in ethics, to the ancient Hellenes, however Evil was disorder/chaos, anything that disrupted the structure of their lives. One extreme example of this is that in Sparta it was illegal to get sick. The Hellenes equated order and structure with goodness, as it helped their lives function and protected them, on the same token disorder, chaos and anything that disrupted that was bad and thus Evil. With the conception of Socratic Ethics and Platonic Forms (around 400 B.C.E.) these concepts gained a more moralistic tinge to them that has stuck with them ever since, as can be seen in the difference between Hellenistic and Modern definition of the word, simple disorder versus a lack of morality. I refer to these ancient philosophers because they had a profound influence on the formation of church doctrines at and around the formation of the Christian church for whom "The Problem of Evil" is an issue. The Christian philosopher Augustine worked much of Plato's works into church doctrine, about 1000 years later Thomas Aquinas brought the works of Aristotle into Christian doctrine. These works vastly influenced the formation and early life of the Christian church.

The Problem of Evil[edit]

There is an unexpected, or perhaps misplaced, annexable conclusion extractable from the classic Problem of Evil and that is the case for Manichéism. From "the Holocaust, why didn't He stop it? (a) He couldn't or (b) He wouldn't?" we get: He's not all-powerful or He has His Reasons: Things far Beyond our Tiny Minds. The problem comes in part from our ascribing to Him the attribute (among others) of Infinite Goodness. The question arises, could he choose to be Bad? If He is after all Omnipotent, I suppose He could. It's no business of human beings if He got fed up with the 'Loving Father' image. And we're told again and again in the Bible ('I am what I am')that it's not for us to doubleguess Him. If one argues it's impossible for Him to be Bad, because His Nature is Good(ness), we're presuming to know His Nature and defining it for Him. Two equal principles of Good and Evil answer these conumdrums more logically than the One (Flawed) Good God who knows and sees all. Auschwitz was the work of men, and so in fairness it is more difficult to pull Him up over that. But the recent tsunami in the Indian Ocean was 'natural' and it is phenomena such as that, -earthquakes and so on that really stretch the inventiveness of the Good God apologists. The Manichéan has no problem with this.

The problem of evil is that an omnipotent, omnipresent, benevolent God (these features are commonly associated with “God” in monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judiasm and their derivitives) can not exist in the same world with “real evil.” For example one common argument is that “…God knew about the Holocaust and could have prevented it, but didn’t…” The logical solution to this problem is to weaken one of the premices, such as saying that the murder of thousands isn’t evil or that God doesn’t care about humans. Either way a weakening of one of the premises negatively effects the stability of monotheistic religions and that in a nut shell is the problem of evil.
Some philosophers have concluded that an infinitely good, powerful, and just God is compatible with the existence of evil. One of these philosophers was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646 – 1716). On the assumptions that God exists and is infinitely good, just, and powerful, Leibniz reasoned that God must have created the best possible world. He went on to argue that evil is a necessary component of such a world.
In his work titled Philosopher’s Confession, Leibniz describes the creation of the world. The creator’s intellect is a combination of eternal, unchanging ideas. Everything in the world is an instance of one of these ideas. When God created the world, he chose from among his ideas to create the most harmonious combination. The evil in the world is like a dark, gloomy spot in a great painting; without the gloomy spot, the painting would not look as good. The darkness accents the bright portions.
Leibniz realized he needed to do some more reasoning to resolve the problem of evil, so he dealt extensively with this issue in his Theodicy, a work in which he discusses God’s goodness, free will, and the existence of evil. In this work, Leibniz made a distinction between two kinds of will: Antecedent (coming before) and consequent (following as a result). God antecedently wills for everything to exist in a perfect state, but not all things can exhibit perfection while coexisting with other things, so God consequently wills that the combination of things in the world be as perfect as possible. It is this incompatibility of things in their perfect states that Leibniz reasons to be the root of evil.

David Hume- In Hume's writings "Dialogues", Hume considers an argument in the form of "Epicurus's old questions" which to Hume remain unanswered. These questions are: Is God willing to prevent evil but unable to do so? If this is the case, then God is not omnipotent. Is God able to prevent evil but unwilling to do so? then he is malevolent(or at the least less that perfectly good). If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why is their evil in the world?. These questions have imposed a great amount of thought over the centuries, and what seems to be at stake here is possible vindication of God and his/her moral attributes that are thrown into the face of the existence of evil. If this cannot be done, then the case for theism in any Christain Orthodox form will collapse under the scrunity. There are several strategies available to a theist to try and defuse this problem. One strategy that may be used is to completely deny that evil really exists, or the reality of evil, and then insist that the evil we witness or experience in our world are "goods to the universe" which are a necessity in obtaining a perfectly good "whole". In other words, these evils are only relative to our own individual, narrow, human perspective, but when veiwing the world or universe as only one system the removal of such "evils" or worldly "afflictions" would only produce a even greater set of ills or completely diminish the good in the world.

This strategy could be possibly be lead to interpretation as either there are no real evils in this world, but evils of necessity. Hume takes the view that this strategy is contrary to the overall human experience. The distinction between good and evil in reality, whether in the physical or moral sense, depends on "the natural sediments of the human mind". These distinctions, when based on feelings, cannot be altered or amended " by any philosophical theory or speculation whatsoever"(EU,8.34-5/101-03).

In the dialogues, Hume opens his discussion of the problem of evil by having Philo(the sceptic)describe a catalogue of suffering and misery in this world. He starts his discussion with the suffering of animals, such as the strong that prey on the weak and so forth, and continues to move on to the subject of human suffering in its many forms such as illness, disease, emotional strife and grief, even describing religion (superstition) as a source of immense fear and anxiety, but despite this enormous catalogue of human suffering, despair and grief, we as humans still find we have a fear of death, that would obviously put an end to such a miserable experience. Hume states,"we are terrified, not bribed to the continuance of our existence"(D99). The conclusion that Philo seems to draw from this is that "the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity" which brings us back to "Epicurus's old argument and questions"(D100)

It would seem that it is not Hume's intention to show that the reality of evil proves that God is not or cannot be both omnipotent and perfectly good, but that we are likely in no position to claim that we could know what God will correct or rectify in or of this world(i.e. rectify the unjust distribution of good and evil). We may hope or even imagine that possibly something better may be bestowed upon us, but the present phenomena do not seem to give license a hypothesis of this kind as of yet.(EU,11.21,24.)

The central emphasis or idea in Hume's discussion of evil in the Dialogues is to demonstrate how this kind of theodicy can fail.

...I will allow, that pain or misery in man is compatible with infinite power and goodness in the Diety, even in your sense of these attributes: What have you advanced by all these concessions? A mere possible compatilibility is not sufficient. You must prove the pure unmixed, and uncontrollable attrubites from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone(D103) Philo will go on to attempt to point out that even if the phenomena were :pure and unmixed they are still finite and so insufficient to prove God's infinite perfection and goodness. The phenomena of nature are, in any case, not only finite, they are a mixture of good and evil, so any effort to prove God's power "infinite power and goodness" steeprd in this basis is really a hopeless task. Here Philo claims to "triumph"(D202, Later, Philo returns to this point.

...as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject. I am skeptic enough to allow, that the bad appearances, notwithstanding all my reasonings, may be compatible with such attributes as you suppose:but surely they can never prove these attributes.(D113)

It is now clear the subtlety in the argument of Hume. There is no need for the skeptic to infer a forceful argument that has the aim to prove that God cannot exist on the basis of the real existence of evil in the world. All that Hume the skeptic need to is to in some way that the theist is to establish or prove God's attributes of infinite power and goodness given the evidence of creation as we seem to observe it. What must be done by the theist to meet this challenge head on is to try and show that all evil exists in this world is necessary and really unavoidable. It is very clear that the theist is in a difficult position to try and support this claim..

Hume's concession that evil and God's existence are compatible may tend to take on the appearance of another effort to retreat from a stronger skeptical position.


What conclusions can we draw from this? Are our beliefs about God incorrect or do we just not have all the pieces of the puzzle. It is my oppinion that given time and experience we shall come up with information or a new perspective on this issue and it’s concept will once again change, such is the evolution of the human expierence, human intellect and human spirituality. After decades of neglect, the language of evil has been reintroduced to public life in the rhetoric used by political leaders in the early twenty-first century. Some political theorists, too, have argued that a revival of the language of evil is required to maintain a sufficient outrage at genocide, nuclear weapons, terrorism, and threats to the ecological stability of the planet.

Shared indignation at the worst things people do seems to be all that remains of a shared normative view of the world. But does this justify reviving the language of evil? Feminist scholars are not the only ones to caution against so quintessentially dualistic a concept. Evil allows no compromise. But the history of human societies shows that it is almost always the other who is demonized. Perhaps what Carl Gustav Jung called a "morality of evil"—an integration through honest recognition of the capacity for evil in human nature—is safer.

The modern problematic of theodicy, with its confidence in reason and shared conceptions of the good, may not survive our postmodern age. As long as we try to make moral sense of the world and of human life, however, "evil" will remain a challenge and a temptation.

God is not the author of evil. [8] However, God does reward and punish on the basis of good and bad behavior. Therefore, God does bring judgment and calamity (either directly or through human authorities) on those who rebel. [9] God will ultimately judge all people, since rebels will not be allowed in the new, perfect creation.

Test Yourself. Choose the best option.[edit]

1 To the ancient Hellenes what was evil?

Something Wicked
The French
None of the above

2 What is the Problem of Evil?

A lack of concern for ones fellows.
Moral depravity in society.
An omnipotent, omniprescent, benevolent God can not exist in the same world with “real evil.”
Bad Cheese

3 To the ancient Hellenes what was good?

Both a and d

4 Why is the problem of evil important?

Because it calls into question long standing beliefs about the nature of god?
It is the supreme conflict of the spititual universe.
All of the above.
d) It isn't.

5 Put Aristotle Socrates and Plato into the correct order chronologically.

Who are these Guys
Plato, Socrates, Aristotle
Aristotle, Socrates Plato
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle

6 Why is it important to look at things in the terms and environment in which they were created?

Because we may have a different frame of reference for things today than was present at their inception.
It is unimportant because concepts do not change over time.
So we do not get confused with poorly translated texts.
d) None of the Above.

7 Which Philosopher listed below most influenced Augustine?

Thomas Aquinas

8 Which ancient Philosopher listed below most influenced Aquinas?


9 About how long after Augustine was it before Aquinas?

18 hours
7 light years
1000 years
6 months

10 Who were the Hellenes?

The French
Ancient Greeks

Important People.[edit]

Socrates - Athens 469-399 B.C.E

Plato - Athens 427-347 B.C.E

Aristotle - Athens 384-322 B.C.E

Augustine - Tagaste 354-430 C.E

Thomas Aquinas - Italy 1225-1274 C.E

For Additional Information[edit]

See the Wikipedia entries for Evil, God and the aforementioned philosophers.
Also take a look at the section on Presocratics and Socratics if you haven't already.

Works Sited can be found here.[edit]

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