The Problem of Evil and Suffering

What is the problem of evil and suffering? What is its impact and what are the strengths and weaknesses of the argument? Revise Augustine and Irenaeus, and Plantinga and Hick. Look at free will and theodicies. With advice on past questions and essay tips.

About The Problem of Evil and Suffering

Google’s motto, “don’t be evil”, has drawn recent criticism in the wake of revelations about the company’s international tax avoidance. Many deem the company hypocritical – but is tax avoidance really evil?

It is probably easier to think of examples of evil, rather than define it. In this way, evil is like the colour yellow (or, perhaps more fitting, red). There are clearly instances of colour but defining it – especially to a blind person – is difficult and requires a common frame of reference.

For example, most people would agree that the murder of a small child is “evil” and that the killing of three-year-old James Bulger in 1993 was, therefore, an evil act. However, mention the word “abortion” and opinion is immediately divided. The 185,000 abortions carried out in the UK each year suggest it is not universally regarded as “evil”, although in Northern Ireland it is illegal.

Similarly, the penalty for apostasy in several Muslim countries is death – but not in England, a secular society.

In other words, it is clear that there is a certain amount of subjectivity when it comes to defining evil. Of course the reason that abortions and apostasy are prohibited is because they are both deemed to go against “the will of God”. (This will be discussed later.) However, the difference between the two is that it is arguable that abortion does cause human suffering (the potential emotional suffering of the mother and, possibly, father; the physical suffering of the foetus if it is able to feel pain), whereas renouncing faith in Islam might not seem to cause human suffering. This is of paramount significance because, when we look at the instances of evil people tend to give, (murder, rape, theft, abuse, arson, genocide, bullying, etc) the common denominator seems to be that they all cause suffering.

Key words and terms related to the problem of evil and suffering

  • DEONTOLOGIST – Someone who considers that actions are intrinsically moral or immoral. Kant’s is a deontological ethical system
  • DUALISM – Belief in two opposing forces; often gods. A dualist solution to the problem of evil is to say that good and evil are equal forces in conflict (or harmony) with each other, such as the yin/yang symbol depicts
  • EUTHYPHRO DILEMMA – Found in an early dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro, written by Plato; the question is essentially whether things are good because the gods command them, or if the gods command things because those things are good
  • INCONSISTANT TRIAD – The notion that God’s omnibenvolence and omnipotence are inconsistent with the existence of evil – ie either God wants to get rid of evil but can’t, or can, but chooses not to
  • OMNIBENEVOLENT – All-loving
  • OMNIPOTENT – All-powerful
  • OMNIPRESENT – Being everywhere
  • OMNISCIENT – All-knowing
  • ONTIC – That which is – ie relating to the actual existence of things
  • PHENOMENAL – The “phenomenal” world is that which exists as we perceive it – ie in the mind. (Kant distinguishes between this and the NOUMENAL world, which is the world as it really is.)
  • PRIVATIO BONI – Latin, meaning privation of good. Widely used by Augustine and Aquinas to point to the privative nature of evil – ie as a lack of, or bending away from, good
  • THEODICY – A philosophical or theological defence (or justification) of God in the face of evil
  • UTILITARIANISM – A teleological (consequentialist) system of ethics devised by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, whereby an action is considered moral if it brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people
  • CESSATIONISM – The notion that God has ceased to perform miracles
  • CREATION EX NIHILO – Creation “out of nothing”. A central tenet of the Judeo-Christian understanding of creation – that god made “all that is, seen and unseen” from nothing. This is in opposition to Plato, who thought that god used pre-existing matter to form the universe
  • ESSE – The essential nature, or essence, of something
  • INCARNATION – One of the central tenets of the Christian faith – the belief that God became man in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth
  • PRO NOBIS – Latin, “for us”
  • SPACETIME – Our material universe, comprised of matter and time inextricably linked
  • SUPRA – Beyond. Used here to indicate the realm beyond this material universe which “contains” spacetime
  • EMANATION – By this view, creation is more of an “outpouring” rather than a conscious, divine willing
  • EVOLUTION – The Darwinian theory that biological life progresses and adapts, due to the processes of natural and sexual selection (or “survival of the fittest”)
  • IN INTELLECTU – (Latin) Existing in the mind
  • IN RE – (Latin) Existing in reality
  • MORAL EVIL – Evil (or suffering) which seems to correlate to direct human activity, eg natural murder, rape, theft
  • NATURAL EVIL – Evil (or suffering) which seems to have no correlation to direct human activity, eg natural disasters and diseases
  • PRINCIPLE OF PLENITUDE – The notion that a perfect universe is one that contains all forms of creatures – from high to low
  • APOCALYPSE – (Greek) “Revelation” or “uncovering”
  • CONCUPISCENCE – Our desire for sin
  • DOCTRINE – Church teaching
  • DOUBLE PREDESTINATION – The doctrine that, as some humans have been preselected by God to be saved, so have others been preselected to be damned
  • EISEGESIS – Interpretation of a text by reading “into” it (ie projecting one’s own ideas onto it)
  • EXEGESIS – Interpretation of a text by reading “out” of it (ie discovering its “hidden” meaning)
  • FREE WILL – A topic of some contention in philosophy, theology and ethics, this is the notion that humans are free to act as they wish – either in concordance or against the will of God
  • ORIGINAL SIN – The doctrine that all humans are born “inclined to evil” and is therefore in need of salvation
  • PREDESTINATION – The doctrine that some humans have been pre-selected by God to be saved
  • PREMUNDANE – Before the creation of the world
  • SATAN – “The Accuser.” One of the designations of the Judeo-Christian Devil
  • SIN – Immoral actions that are contrary to the will of God
  • SOTERIOLOGICAL – To do with salvation
  • THE THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES OF RELIGION – Ratified by Queen Elizabeth, these are the accepted doctrines of the Church of England, as of 1563
  • UNIVERSALISM – The notion that God will ultimately save everyone
  • EPISTEMIC DISTANCE – Hick’s view that God has created man at a distance from Him. This is not a spatial distance but one of knowledge
  • ESCHATOLOGIAL JUSTIFICATION – Another essential component of Hick’s theodicy in the Irenaean tradition is that God will ultimately bring evil to justice and “all shall be well”
  • EUCATASTROPHE – “Good turn”. Essentially a monumental event that turns bad to good. Tolkien says that “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.”
  • FELIX CULPA – (Latin) “Happy Fault” or “fortunate fall”. This is the notion that the fall was “happy” because it ultimately brought about the redemption of humanity through Christ
  • PUNCTILIAR – Occurring at a precise moment in time
  • VALE OF SOUL-MAKING – A phrase originally coined by John Keats; this is the basis of John Hick’s theodicy and suggests that this world is designed to shape us into God’s likeness
  • CHRISTOLOGY – Branch of theology concerned with the person and nature of Jesus Christ
  • DAS NICHTIGE – Barth’s term which, although adequately untranslatable, is used to mean that evil which is totally opposed to God’s will and yet is also a sort of nothing
  • DYSTELEOLOGICAL – Without any final end purpose
  • ETERNAL COMPOSSIBILITIES – The notion that, in creation, God could only “do” certain things and was constrained by a pre-existing set of logical laws
  • SEPTUAGINT – The Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. Often referred to as LXX (Roman Numerals for 70) in theology. Its name is owing to the legend that seventy scholars translated the scriptures independently and all arrived at the same translation – hence it was deemed to have received divine approval