Course notes on the problem of evil and suffering for students of the Edexcel syllabus

From the syllabus for the Philosophy of Religion (Paper 1)

3.1 Problem of evil and suffering

The nature of the problem across a range of religious traditions, types of evil and suffering, moral and non-moral. The challenge to religious belief posed by the inconsistency of the nature of God and the evident existence of evil and suffering challenging belief in the existence of God.

With reference to the ideas of D Hume and J Mackie.

3.2  Theodicies and solutions to the problem of suffering

a)    Belief that creation was good; evil and suffering is a privation of good due to the fall of the angels and man because of the misuse of free will, soul-deciding, significance of reconciliation.
b)  Belief that creation is a mix of good and evil linked to the vale of soul making theodicy, including free will defence, best of all possible worlds, epistemic distance, eschatological justification.
c)    Process theodicy: God is not responsible for evil and suffering, but he is a co-sufferer and cannot coerce the free will of human agents.
d)  Strengths and weaknesses of theodicies and solutions: compatibility or otherwise with modern views about origins of life, nature of God, innocent suffering, hypothesis of life after death.

With reference to the ideas of Augustine and Irenaeus.

NOTE: for part d) see also the course notes on Life and Death/The Soul that can be found HERE.

The Problem of Evil

  • the classic or logical problem of evil as outlined by Epicurus (who was a Greek philosopher not a Christian) is as follows:
  • If God is all-powerful (omnipotent) He could put a stop to evil.
  • If God is all-loving (omnibenevolent) He would want to put a stop to evil.
  • But evil exists.
  • Therefore God is not all-powerful or not all-loving (or both).
  • Some philosophers argue that because God is omniscient (all-knowing) this is also incompatible with the existence of evil in the world because God must have known in advance what was going to happen. One example is Bertrand Russell, who wrote that ‘If I were going to beget a child knowing that the child was going to be a homicidal maniac, I should be responsible for his crimes. If God knew in advance the sins of which man would be guilty, He was clearly responsible for all the consequences of those sins when He decided to create man’.
  • A second version of the problem, known as the evidential problem of evil says, not that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God, but that the existence of evil provides good evidence against the existence of a God that has these qualities.
  • The evidential problem of evil has been summarised by the philosopher Stephen Evans as follows:
  • If God exists, he would not allow any pointless evil.
  • Probably, there is pointless evil.
  • Therefore, probably, God does not exist.
  • According to the evidential problem of evil, the amount and type of evil now becomes relevant. If examples of evil with no obvious purpose can be found, then this serves to undermine, perhaps decisively, the probability of God’s existence.
  • As John Holroyd has observed in his book Judging Religion: A Dialogue For Our Time, ‘The strength of this argument as a challenge to belief in God, compared with the argument from the logical problem of evil, is that the burden of proof is lower here and the conclusion therefore more easily reached. it only has to seem likely that some instance of evil is pointless for belief in God to be less than reasonable.’
  • And when we start to consider the enormous amount of suffering in the world – including the millions of years of animal suffering caused by natural events that occurred before humans even made an appearance – it becomes overwhelmingly unlikely that every last bit of suffering can be accounted for as having some kind of point to it.
  • Another example of pointless evil, one that has a profound impact on human beings, is that of disease. For example, some babies are born with epidermolysis bullosa, a genetic skin disease that causes blistering all over the body, so that the baby cannot be held, or even lie on its back without pain. It seems odd to think that there is some kind of point to this illness.
  • This example and that of animal suffering can be seen as responses to those who believe that if nothing bad ever happened, we would not be in a position to know and appreciate good things. Although this may explain why God might allow some evil to exist, it does not explain why there is such a superabundance of evil in the world. As James Rachels has pointed out in his book Problems from Philosophy, “The problem is that the world contains vastly more evil than is necessary for an appreciation of the good. If, say, only half the number of people died every year of cancer, that would be plenty to motivate the appreciation of health. And because we already have cancer to contend with, we don’t really need epidermolysis bullosa, much less AIDS, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, diphtheria, Ebola, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and bubonic plague,”
  • The evidence around us therefore points to the fact that there is an abundance of pointless evil, which in turn serves to undermine, perhaps decisively, the possibility of God’s existence.
  • The sceptical philosopher David Hume has also discussed the problem of evil in terms of what our present experience of the world might tell us about its origins.
  • In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, he first of all allows for the possibility that the evil that exists in the world might still be consistent with the hypothesis that it is the product of a benevolent designer because – given our ignorance – we cannot know what reasons God might have for allowing evil.
  • Nevertheless, he insists that when we look at the world as a whole, with its mixture of good and evil, we have no good grounds to infer to its creation by this kind of designer. While it remains a possibility, Hume thinks it far more likely that the universe is the product of a first cause that is amoral and therefore neither good nor evil, in other words, one that is indifferent to our suffering. As he puts it, ‘The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.’
  • Hume summarises the possibilities and his reasons for favouring the ‘blind nature’ option as follows: ‘There may four hypotheses be found concerning the first cause of the universe: that they are endowed with perfect goodness, that they have perfect malice, that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice, that they have neither goodness nor malice. Mixed phenomena can never prove the two former unmixed principles. And the uniformity and steadiness of general laws seem to oppose the third. The fourth therefore seems by far the most probable.’
  • In other words, the world as it is now contains a mixture of good and evil. For this reason, although it is just possible that it might be the product of either a good God (who might have reasons for allowing evil) or an evil God (who might have reasons for placing some good in the world – for more on that see Stephen Law’s Evil God Challenge that is described below and presented on video HERE), from the current state of the universe in which evil and good are mixed up together, we can never conclusively infer the existence of a good or evil God. The relative stability of our universe also makes it unlikely that it is the result of opposing forces of good and evil, as there would probably be no stability if these forces were competing against each other. This just leaves the fourth option that has already been described above (and that, it should be noted, is compatible with the modern theory of evolution, an obvious strength of Hume’s line of argument).
  • Philosophers generally distinguish two types of evil that must be explained: moral evil – the harm humans knowingly inflict on others; and non-moral evil (suffering, natural evil) resulting from phenomena like earthquakes, floods and disease.
  • Attempts to deal with the problem of evil are called ‘theodicies’. The word ‘theodicy’ literally means a justification of God. In plain English this involves attempting to prove that the existence of an omnipotent, all-loving God is not incompatible with the existence of evil. Remember that a convincing theodicy has to include a satisfactory explanation for both natural and moral evil. The word ‘theodicy’ was first used by Leibniz.

The Augustinian Theodicy

Augustine might have regarded all evil as a punishment from God. But maybe even he wouldn’t have gone this far.

  • St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) was very concerned to show that God was not responsible in any way for the existence of evil in this world.
  • He argued that God is perfect and created a perfect world.
  • Evil is caused by creatures created with free-will who misuse that free-will to reject God.
  • Some angels (and especially Satan as a fallen angel) used their free will to turn against God.
  • So did Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they failed to resist temptation (Augustine thought that the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis was literally true).
  • The world went wrong because of these choices, in particular the original sin of Adam and Eve. And as the descendants of Adam and Eve, we are therefore tainted with their sin and therefore deserve to suffer (because we were all, apparently, seminally present in the loins of Adam).
  • Through these sins God’s creation was corrupted and the natural goodness of the world disappeared: there was a ‘privation’ (privatio boni) of the good. A privation occurs when some good is absent which a thing should have. A stone that lacks eyes has not suffered a privation because it is not meant to have them. But a seagull without wings could be said to have suffered a privation because it should have them.
  • In other words, evil is certainly real but it is a sort of defect. Just as blindness is a defect (an absence of sight), so evil is an absence of good.
  • In summary, Augustine wrote that ‘All evil is either sin or the punishment for sin’. In other words, both moral and natural evil result from the misuse of free-will by angels and humans.
  • In addition to his ‘soul-deciding’ theodicy (so called because human beings (and angels) are in a position to decide their fate through the way they make use of the free-will they have been created with) Augustine also suggested that evil is part of the natural balance of the universe. Just as a painting might contain light and dark shades to create a striking artistic effect, so the universe is like a work of art. From our perspective there might seem to be too much seemingly unjust pain and suffering. But if we have this point of view, we are like somebody who can only see the shadows in a painting. From the point of view of the ‘artist’ (God) all this evil and suffering eventually gets balanced out. Why? Because sinners eventually get punished and justice is done. And so the harmony of the universe gets restored.
  • BUT:
  • No Adam and Eve. Perhaps the most obvious objection is that Augustine’s theodicy must entail that science is false. We are, in fact, not the product of millions of years of evolution but the descendants of the Biblical Adam & Eve, who themselves initially lived in an earthly paradise that was entirely free from natural and moral evil. Of course, science tells us that this Edenic paradise has never existed. But if it never existed and the Fall never took place, then Adam and Eve’s sin cannot be used to explain the suffering caused by natural diseases and disasters. Nor, of course, can they be used to explain the millions of years of animal suffering that are now known to have occurred prior to the existence of humanity.
  • It is also not made clear by Augustine why angels and humans might want to misuse their free-will in the first place. If the world and everything in it was created perfect then why would perfect creatures like angels and humans want to turn away from God? It is not inevitable that because angels and humans have been given free-will (in order perhaps to choose to enter into a loving relationship with God) they will eventually start to choose evil.
  • The Role of Sin. The claim that earthquakes, tsunamis and disease are caused by human sin is one that most people would find hard to accept, especially when very young children are affected by them. The philosopher Bertrand Russell makes this point when he writes: “I would invite any Christian to accompany me to the children’s ward of a hospital, to watch the suffering that is there being endured, and then to persist in the assertion that those children are so morally abandoned as to deserve what they are suffering.” Russell also argues that an omniscient God is ultimately responsible for all the evil that we do because He had prior knowledge of it but still allowed it to happen. And the Russian novelist Dostoevsky argued that whatever God’s plan is that it cannot justify the suffering of innocent children.
  • BUT: Augustine’s assertion that even natural evil like diseases, earthquakes etc. are a punishment for sin is based on the idea of collective punishment. Because humanity sins, humanity must pay, and the punishment may not be matched to the individual sinner. However, many people would argue that collective punishments are unfair e.g. think of the time when an innocent pupil might have found themselves in a whole class detention because of the misbehaviour of a minority of their peers.
  • AND : Maurice Wiles has argued that a miracle working God would not help to solve the problem of evil. This is because miracles would compromise the goodness of God. It would be unfair if God helped some people in their suffering or intervened to prevent some people from doing evil but not others.
  • As far as the aesthetic aspect of the Augustinian theodicy is concerned (we cannot see the bigger picture from our limited perspective but if we could, we would appreciate that the light outweighs the dark in the overall scheme of things), one problem here is the vast amount of suffering undergone by animals in human history, which does not seem to be balanced out by anything. In addition, it seems to trivialise the suffering of children to suggest that all that some of them go through will, in the end, get balanced out when the perpetrators of evil are eventually punished by being condemned to an eternity in hell. Surely this is too high a price to pay as part of the process through which harmony is restored to God’s creation.
  • Finally, Augustine also argued that some people are predestined for heaven or hell. Not only does this seem unjust but it also does not sit very well with Augustine’s claim that humans have free-will (unless it is argued that God simply foreknows what we will freely choose to do).

The Irenaean Theodicy

‘If there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one, or several occasions, there cannot be a logical impossibility in his freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, in acting freely, would sometimes go wrong; there was open to him the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with him being both omnipotent and wholly good.’ from J.L. Mackie ‘Evil and Omnipotence’

  • St Irenaeus (c. 130-c.200 AD) – devised what is known as a ‘soul-making’ theodicy, one that was further developed by John Hick (1922- 2012)
  • Irenaeus focuses on one particular verse from Genesis Chapter 1, namely verse 26, in which it is stated ‘Then God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’
  • For Irenaeus, this means that as we are made in the ‘image’ of God, we have the potential for moral and spiritual growth. Our task in this world is therefore to grow into the ‘likeness’ of God through overcoming the challenges that are sent our way.
  • Irenaeus therefore treats Adam and Eve, not as fully accountable human beings who introduced original sin into the world, but more as morally and spiritually immature creatures who stupidly disobeyed a simple rule.
  • He believes this is therefore a good world for soul-making.
  • Unlike Augustine, for whom evil is a punishment, the Irenaean theodicy sees all evil as having a purpose. It is meant to challenge us to make the right choices that assist our moral and spiritual growth. The world is like a classroom, one in which we are able to learn from the errors we make.
  • In other words, in the Irenaean theodicy, the source of evil is God himself. This is very different from Augustine who in no way wishes to associate the existence of evil with God. For Augustine, human beings bring evil entirely on themselves because of their misuse of free-will.
  • Like Augustine, Irenaeus also embraces the notion of free-will but sees it as having an important purpose.
  • Through our free choices, we will hopefully develop virtues of character such as courage, charity, patience etc. We will learn to be better people.
  • It is also important for Irenaeus that we overcome our tendency to behave like animals, as creatures of impulse and instinct. Instead, we should try to grow into the likeness of God by cultivating spiritual qualities like the ones just mentioned, and also compassion, love and gentleness.
  • Hick adds something called epistemic distance into the mix – God must leave us a space to be ourselves and to be genuinely free to choose him. If God’s existence was obvious this would not be possible. So instead, God creates a world in which his existence is not self-evident.
  • This epistemic distance continues to be closed in the afterlife where soul-making continues.
  •  Hick therefore believes that suffering is part of a process of soul-making that everyone has to go through. However, Hick also argues that everyone will complete that process eventually and no-one will suffer eternally (as Augustine claims). All will eventually achieve a state of reconciliation with God. This is because he thinks that a truly omnibenevolent (all-loving) God would not condemn anyone to Hell forever. So for Hick, Hell is only a place of temporary punishment.
  • So everyone eventually becomes spiritually perfected in the afterlife. This idea is called universalism.
  • So Hick builds on the theodicy of Irenaeus by adding to it, the notions of epistemic distance and universalism. He also regards evolution as the means by which God produces beings that are capable of being responsive to him. In doing so, Hick therefore acknowledges that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is a myth (for Irenaeus, as with Augustine, this story would have been regarded as literally true).
  • BUT: while it may not be unreasonable for someone to believe that there is a God who keeps himself at an epistemic distance from us, it is surely also not unreasonable to believe that the reason why God’s existence is not immediately apparent to us is because He actually does not exist.
  • Hick’s appeal to universalism would not sit well with traditionally minded Christians who a) believe in Hell and b) believe that for free-will to be meaningful it must be truly possible for us to damn ourselves for all eternity through the choices we make.
  • They might further believe that the very worst people do not deserve to soul-make but instead should be subjected to some kind of eternal punishment.
  • It still seems difficult to justify the suffering of animals (an example of natural evil) as the backdrop to soul-making in both Irenaeus’s original theodicy and Hick’s modification of it. Hick himself has commented that animals have a ‘happy blindness’ to the inevitability of death and, because they live ‘from instant to instant’, are not able to remember their potentially traumatising experiences of suffering. However more recent research into animal awareness suggests that some species do remember their experiences and the suffering that results from them. For example, some chimpanzees and gorillas who have been taught ASL (American Sign Language) have signed their awareness of death and personal feelings of mourning.
  • And why did God permit all the animal suffering that went on in the millions of years before homo sapiens evolved? Was this prelude to the process of human soul-making really necessary?
  • Similarly, the suffering of innocent children does not seem justifiable as part of the process of soul-making (though it makes sense of why some children die young – most of their soul-making can then still take place in the afterlife).
  • More recently, Stephen Law has argued that the notion that this world is the creation of an evil God who deliberately subjects us to a process of character destruction over the course of our lives is every bit as plausible as the conception of creation found in the Irenaean theodicy. Such a God might, for example, allow us to have children to love so as to cause us to worry agonizingly about them. He also provides us with healthy young bodies so that we can slowly be deprived of that health and vitality over the course of our lives. By giving us something wonderful for a while, and then gradually taking it away, an evil god can make us suffer even more than if we had never had it in the first place. Law’s point is to undermine the reasonableness of the Irenaean theodicy.
  • An evidentialist might go even further than this and argue that the staggering amounts of evil the world contains, much of which seems unnecessary or implausible, is evidence against the existence of the kind of God that Hick’s version of the Irenaean theodicy seeks to defend.
  • As has already been noted, James Rachels takes this view: ‘The need to develop moral character might explain why there must be some evil in the world, but there is far more evil than is necessary for such a purpose: there is stunning, overpowering evil that crushes the life out of people. If we already have AIDS, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida, do we need Ebola as well? If the people of Guatemala are poor and hungry, do they need an earthquake on top of it?’…’The amount of evil in the world could be reduced by two-thirds and there would still be more than we could handle.’
  • Lastly, Mackie (see above) has argued that if it is logically possible for us to freely choose to do good on one occasion then an omnipotent God could have created us with the ability to freely choose to do good on every occasion. This undermines the whole basis of the free-will defence in both the Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies.

Hinduism and Buddhism : Evil and Suffering in Indian Religion (NOTE: THE FOLLOWING HAS ALREADY BEEN POSTED HERE)

  • Alternatives to traditional Christian theodicy are provided by Hinduism and Buddhism.
  • For Hindus, we suffer because of the evil actions that we performed in a previous life, according to the law of karma.
  • We can free ourselves from the cycle of rebirth and suffering through good deeds and meditation, eventually achieving a state of moksha (release) in which we finally realize that our soul or atman is identical with Brahman (the One Reality which we are all part of and which gives rise to the universe).
  • So as we are all really part of Brahman and Brahman is eternal, death and suffering/evil are an illusion (maya).
  • For Buddhists, there is no problem of evil, only a problem of suffering or dukkha. This is because Buddhists do not believe that there is one, creator God. They are not monotheists.
  • Although the Buddhist scriptures mention gods, there are many of them and they die and get reborn too.
  • Like Hindus, Buddhists also believe in karma and rebirth and that liberation is possible through good actions and meditation.
  • However, Buddhists believe that it is what we intend rather than what we do that has good and bad karmic effects.
  • And Buddhists do not believe that they become one with Brahman. Instead, doing a lot of meditation helps to free people from suffering and leads on to the attainment of a state called Nirvana which also entails freedom from the cycle of rebirth and inevitable suffering.
  • Buddhists also do not believe that we have a soul. Instead, just as the world around us changes, we are constantly changing too. But this process of continual change has no beginning and no end. In other words, Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent, including us. This is the teaching of anatta (no-self).
  • Natural evil is therefore just a feature of the universe.
  • The traditional theodicies of Augustine and Irenaeus take no account of animal suffering. But in both Hinduism and Buddhism, animal rebirths are thought to result from previous karma.
  • Also, inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals matters for both Hindus and Buddhists and can produce bad karma.
  • Here though, an issue might be how animals might be said to be karmically accountable for their actions when their behaviour is mainly instinctive.
  • And the Buddhist emphasis on intention is questionable because we cannot know people’s true intentions as they are hidden from us.
  • Using Ockham’s razor, we could explain life’s unfairness as being due to chance or coincidence, as this is a simpler explanation that does not involve concepts like reincarnation and the survival of the atman in Hinduism.
  • Hick’s criticisms of research into alleged past life memories in children, the possibility of reincarnation and the possibility of establishing identity between lifetimes (see HERE) are also relevant.
  • Another criticism of reincarnation is that the explanation for life’s unfairness is always put off. If we ask ourselves why we are suffering now, a Hindu or Buddhist might say that this could be because of something bad we did in a previous life. But when we go back to that previous life we are then left with explaining suffering there in terms of other previous lives. A problem with this is that we never get back to a life from which evil originates. And even if we could get back to that first existence, the starting point of all our reincarnations, then we would still be left with the problem of explaining why suffering in our very first life is justified because there is no previous karma to affect us.
  • For Hindus, we suffer because of maya or illusion – a failure to recognise that our eternal soul or atman is identical with Brahman. But the problem is that suffering does not seem illusory to the people who are suffering or have suffered e.g. in Auschwitz.