Problem of Evil

Vibrio Cholerae (Cholera) is a kind of bacteria that was widely present in people’s food & water sources not too long ago. Upon consumption, it would lead to exhaustive diarrhea which causes the infected person to excrete all their fluids until he dies, usually within less than a day. The bubonic plague, on the other hand, has a still more horrific side to it: Its symptoms are heavy breathing, blood vomiting, and severe pain caused by the actual decomposition of the body while the person is still alive.

This is Cholera


Hundreds of Millions of people have undoubtedly suffered violent and painful deaths throughout the ages as a result of these diseases and other evils in the world such as famine, drought, natural disasters, and human warfare. Hundreds of Millions more have watched their loved ones struggling with violent deaths, forever shutting their eyes, and leaving the appalled survivors in unimaginable emotional pain and existential emptiness. A mother who lost her only 3-year-old son to a domestic electrocution accident can never again smile in the same way; she would spend the remainder of her life in brutal pain, ruthless guilt, and cruel despair and purposelessness. The existence of all these evils in the world seems to be logically inconsistent with the existence of a benevolent god that looks out and cares for humanity. As the great Woody Allen puts it: “If god exists I hope he has a good excuse”.


In the following paper, I will explain the Problem of Evil and show how it undermines the belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good deity; I will also present one Theodocy that attempts to deal with this problem and put forward two objections to it. Finally I will examine and respond to the possible rescue attempts that this Theodocy might present.


The problem of evil, which was first formulated by Epicurus, sets out to prove that the existence of evil in the world is logically inconsistent with the existence of an all-perfect deity. Back in his days, Epicurus presented the problem in the form of questions about the nature of god: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The magnitude of these questions is just as colossal now as it was in ancient times. To visualize this more, it is helpful to think of real-life examples of evil. According to U.N statistics, for instance, 17000 children starve to death every day. If an all-perfect god exists then he should know of this, he should care to fix it, and he should be able to fix it. Yet since the children are starving anyway, this implies that either he doesn’t exist or that he isn’t perfect (that is lacking in knowledge, power, or goodness). In modern days, the argument takes the following form:


1)      If an all-perfect god exists, then he is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good

2)      If he is all-knowing, then he must know where and when evil is happening in the world

3)      If he is all-powerful, then he must have the ability to stop evil in the world

4)      If he is all-good, then he must will to end evil in the world

5)      Evil exists in the world


6)      An all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good god does not exist


This argument is taken seriously by both theists and atheists because it is obviously a valid argument: that is, granted that the premises (1through 5) are true, the conclusion (6) would logically follow. The truth of the conclusion is simply inescapable if the premises are shown to be true. The debate, therefore, is on the level of whether all the premises are true or not. Different Theodocy attempts have been made to show that one or more of the premises are false. I will represent here the one Theodocy that I feel is most respectable, and that is the one that attacks premise (4). This Theodocy argues as follows: there definitely exists a god and he is indeed all-perfect. He is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving, but he is also all-wise. Whatever we humans shortsightedly consider as evil, being allowed to occur by god, is not in fact so. In his divine wisdom, god knows that it will bring about some greater good. Suffering is necessary to teach us compassion; warfare was necessary to develop technologies that will, in time, save more lives than they have taken; the presence of some evil is vital for us to appreciate how good goodness really is. Pain is good for the soul at times. For us to try to speak of whether god’s actions are good or bad for us is just like when a child, who doesn’t understand why her parents forbid her of too much candy or too much staying up late, blames her parents for standing in the way of her happiness.  The child, with limited knowledge and experience, does not understand the wisdom of the parents, and just as such, we children of god don’t understand his infinite wisdom.


'Infinite' Wisdom: Beware!

So if we look at the premises above, what this Theodocy is saying is that god can be all good and still at the same time allow evil for the sake of some greater good that only he is wise enough to see. For many people, the attempt of the mentioned Theodocy to adapt to the problem of evil might sound convincing. However, it faces many problems on its own. Of these I shall present two objections.


The first objection has to do with god’s moral character: if we are to accept that god allows some evils in the world to harvest greater goods, then it can be shown that he is in contradiction with his own teachings. To clarify this point, I first need to briefly present two of the major philosophical accounts of ethics. These are deontology and utilitarianism. The first states that there exists a fixed universal law of right and wrong in the world, and each action’s morality is judged according to this law, without any dependence on the consequences of this action. So, deception, stealth, and murder are always morally wrong regardless if it’s for a good reason or not. Utilitarianism, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on the consequences of actions to evaluate their moral value. So stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving children might be considered ethical according to this view; the consequences that result from your action are what determines if it’s good. Both accounts have their strong points and their week points.




Is this guy a hero or a thief? Utilitarianism: hero; Deontology: thief


What is notable here is that god’s moral rules, as are stated in scripture, seem to be on the side of deontology. Commandments such as “don’t kill” or “don’t steal” or even “never worship any other god” are found in the majority of religious scriptures. By their very nature, they do not open the door for consequential evaluation. It is unlikely to see a religious commandment such as “Do not steal, unless it is for the greater good or in case you want to feed hungry orphans” or “Thou shalt not kill, unless it is in self defense or you want to protect an innocent soul”. God’s word is decisive, strict, and straight to the point: “do this” – “don’t do that”. Therefore god preaches some form of deontology. Yet the exact opposite is being asserted when it is said that he allows some evils for the sake of the greater good; if this was true he wouldn’t be a deontologist, but rather a utilitarian. Therefore, a supporter of this Theodocy should either rule out the ‘god allows evil for greater good’ utilitarian approach to the problem of evil, or else he should abandon all the strict deontological commandments that god makes in his holy books.


The only third alternative is to accept that god wishes mankind to follow deontology but he would rather follow utilitarianism, which would raise a whole other array of problems for the Theodocy to deal with. Or of course it can also be said that the issue doesn’t have to make sense to us, for god is infinitely wise and mysterious.


This brings me to my second and final objection. This objection has to do with the infinite wisdom of god. The logical attempt that Theodocy makes to salvage an all-perfect god from the problem of evil seems to end in annulling logic itself. By stating that god is infinitely wise and that ‘his ways are higher than our ways’, as many religious people assert, one would be simply maintaining that god cannot be accessed through logical or rational inquiry. A god that is mysterious and that cannot be accessed through intellect is a poor god indeed; poor in the sense that he can have very little effect on the lives of men. As Wittgenstein points out, “A nothing will serve just as well as a something about which nothing could be said”. Such a god cannot be said to have any effect on morality, the meaning of life, or any other matter, for he allegedly works on a different level of wisdom than we are able to grasp.


This is indeed a serious objection, for if we were to take mystery and vagueness as proof of some proposition in this case, we can also do the same in any case. The following exercise demonstrates this ludicrousness of this point well: 1- think of your favorite cartoon character 2- assert repeatedly to yourself and to others that this cartoon character truly exists outside of space and time 3- assert furthermore that your cartoon has created the lands and the seas and all that is in between 4- point out that your cartoon character has specific supreme characteristics (all-loving, all-cute, etc) 5- whenever you are faced with a logical objection to your beliefs, simply protest and emphasize that your cartoon character is so great and wise that human reason alone cannot comprehend him (or her) 6- voila, you have emerged victorious over logical arguments that aim to undermine the existence of your cartoon. It is obvious from such an absurd conclusion that such an absurd reasoning should never be allowed.


Who doubts thine cuteness..


Faced with the two above objections, the Theodocy might reply as follows: God is infinitely wise and his wisdom cannot be grasped entirely through our narrow rational faculties, but that does not mean that he is completely not intelligible to us. Some of his teachings or aspects we can understand and appreciate the wisdom of. For example when god tells us to be kind to strangers or to always speak a nice word to everyone, we can appreciate what good-loving wisdom is behind such teachings. Some other aspects of him, however, we cannot speak of. Who for instance can say anything about how it is to exist outside of space and time? Therefore, from the parts that we do understand about his nature and character, we should feel assured to trust in him and his wisdom. What we see he sees, but what he sees we see not. We, then, ought to follow his commandments and stand in great awe & admiration of his wisdom that exceed ours.


Such a reply is merely stating that we must accept some aspects of god through reason and others through faith. This begs the question: How could one possibly pick and choose which is which, if not through the use of reason itself? It is not possible for a believer to define, without inconsistencies, the criteria upon which he decides if his beliefs are defendable in rationality or faith. It is clearly silly to say ‘wherever our arguments fail or are limited, then refer to faith’. Yet that is in particular what this Theodocy is doing. Also, if we were to allow these criteria to be undefined, that is in a universe where everyone is allowed to bring in the ‘faith’ card whenever his reason falls short; this will open the door wide to claims about the nature of life, morality and god that would be impossible to prove or disprove. Who could disprove me if I speak of Spiderman the savior of humanity? No matter how much I assert that this is my faith and that it is beyond rationality, I should not expect to be taken seriously. Mystery or vagueness, if allowed to enter to the realm of our intellectual discourse, in whatever quantity, will surely lead to the complete worthlessness of this discourse.


The problem of evil is one of the strongest arguments against the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good god. There are simply too many horrors in the world to permit the existence of an-all loving god that sees all these horrors and allows them. In the very least, the problem of evil shows that god is either lacking in power, or knowledge, or goodness. Yet all three aspects are essential for the majority of theists around the world. The attempts that Theodocy makes to reconcile the existence of god with the problem of evil amount to being futile upon careful examination. Yet those who believe in god, in my opinion, rarely do so after careful examination of the god arguments. Belief in a deity has more to do with psychological motives for the most part. The journey of life has many hardships; life is fragile; our most inner thoughts and feelings cannot easily be communicated even to our most loved-ones; the world is torn with oppression and injustice. In the face of such threats as loneliness, purposelessness and injustice in the world, the average person might be driven towards supernatural beliefs that would reassure him and reassert his place in the universe. Perhaps by understanding those underlying motives of belief, theists and atheists can have a better dialogue together.

Stephen Hawkings recently said that while science cannot disprove god, it does make him unnecessary. Perhaps by heightening our individual and collective qualities of life, and by genuinely being kinder to one another, the belief in god would one day become unnecessary too.



Author: Mazen Walker

One of the Clafa admins & administrator at Free Thought Lebanon. Studies philosophy at AUB and is mastering in the “Philosophy of Non-Violence and Human Rights” at AUNOHR. Trainer on topics such as 'Strategic Planning for Advocacy' and 'Street Tactics of Non-Violent Direct Action'. Activist with Chaml. Works as a coordinator of peacebuilding projects.

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