This is the the twenty-sixth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. My last post finished up a three-post sub-series on the moral argument for the existence of God. I expect to look at the problem of evil for the next six posts. As one of the most common philosophical reasons not to believe in God (the other being no-evidence arguments), I think the problem of evil deserves twice as much time in class than any of the theistic arguments, and since these posts come from my class notes there's going to be a little more detail in these next posts than there was in some of the last few issues in the series.
[Note: The next several posts on the problem of evil are derived in part from discussions in (1) Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking About God (2004) InterVarsity Press, (2) Daniel Howard-Snyder, "God, Evil, and Suffering" from Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (1999) William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., pp.76-115, and (3) Peter van Inwagen, "The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy" (1988) in God, Knowledge, and Mystery (1995) Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, ch.4, pp. 96-115.]
The problem of evil takes two forms, the logical problem of evil and the evidential problem of evil. This post starts the Logical Problem of Evil. In a couple posts, we'll move on to the evidential problem.
The logical problem of evil begins with three traditional features most theists believe are true of God. The logical problem then proceeds with an argument that such a being would never allow any evil. Given that there is evil, there must be no such being. [The most important presentation of the logical problem of evil is J.L. Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence", which was published in the journal Mind in 1955.]
Traditionally, God is held to be omnipotent (or all-powerful), omniscient (or all-knowing), and perfectly good. Since there are no limits to what an all-powerful and all-knowing being could do, such a being could prevent evil. Additionally, a perfectly good being would prevent evil as much as possible. Therefore, a being who has all three characteristics would prevent all evil. But there is evil. Therefore, there must be no such being.The logical problem of evil thus takes the existence of God and the existence of evil to lead to a contradiction. There is no way both could be true, according to the argument.
Easy Responses to the Logical Problem of Evil
There are several easy ways to avoid the contradiction that the logical problem of evil presents. The easiest is simply to accept the conclusion. There is no God. Of course, some people might want to retain something of theism without facing the contradiction, and thus you have several other options. Since there are three features of God that lead to the contradiction, denying any one of them will avoid the contradiction. Therefore, one need not reject theism wholesale to avoid the problem. One can reject any of the three views.
Someone might reject God's omnipotence. Perhaps God just doesn't have the full kind of omnipotence usually held to be true of God. If God can't stop evil, then even knowing about it ahead of time and wanting to stop it would not mean that evil wouldn't occur.
Someone might reject God's omniscience. Even if God could stop evil and would want to, maybe there is just no way to know ahead of time what people will do. Thus evil happens and surprises even God. [Note: some who adopt this strategy do so not by denying omniscience but by denying foreknowledge and thinking of omniscience slightly differently from traditional views of omniscience. We will come back to that issue after we're done with the problem of evil, but for now I'm going to ignore this technicality. The view denies the foreknowledge of God, which is a departure from traditional understandings of God. That is all that is important for now.]
Finally, someone might reject God's perfect goodness. God might be able to know when evil will occur and have the ability to stop it, but maybe God just doesn't care enough to do anything about it.
In all three of these cases, the contradiction easily disappears. Some philosophers have availed themselves of these options and thus avoided the problem of evil pretty easily. At least, such strategies avoid the contradiction involved with the logical problem of evil. That doesn't mean it avoids all elements of the problem of evil, and the loss to theism is pretty dramatic, which might remove the practical relevance of belief in God in the face of evil, but that is not the same philosophical problem this post is dealing with. These strategies do avoid that particular problem even if they bring on further problems.
But the more interesting philosophical question is whether the contradiction can be avoided without rejecting any of the three traditional features of God. A number of theistic philosophers have tried to show just that. Since most theists do not want to reject these traditional views about God, it makes some sense to explore whether they can all be maintained in the face of this problem. The next post will explore the most common theistic strategy to avoid the contradiction of the logical problem of evil.