Why does our world contain so much evil? Why does it contain any evil at all? These questions and many others, particularly the presence of evil, reflects the most persistent argument raised against theism. The problem of evil is usually seen as the problem of how the existence of God can be reconciled with the existence of evil in the world. The problem simply stems from basic beliefs or assumptions pertaining to the attributes of God: God is perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent. From this, such a God should want to prevent evil, yet much evil exists. There have been many proposed solutions to problem of evil, one being the free will defense/argument. According to this argument, God must allow His creatures to do evil sometimes in order to promote free will. So even if God wants to prevent evil, he cannot because free will is important. The free will defense successfully solves the problem. Some critics believe that this argument fails due to the fact that God could give us free will and still stop people from doing evil. But if that were the case, people would not really have free will; they would know they could not freely do anything they wanted. In this paper I will further explain the problem of evil and examine the concept of the free will argument. Furthermore, I will present J. L. Mackie’s argument regarding the issue, while exploring Alvin Plantinga’s defense. Despite Plantinga’s success and acceptance, his free will defense still presents a conflict between reasoning and the characteristics of God.
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The problem of evil arises because the concept of God seems to entail that there should be no evil in the world. The existence of evil seems to indicate that God is not preventing this evil. If such notion were true, why would not God step in to intervene? Many philosophers, particularly J.L. Mackie, details the problem of evil as a simple case of logical inconsistency, which arises from the attributes of God all being true at the same time. The religious believers assume that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, yet evil exist. Simply stated or broken down, the problem of evil claims that the following prepositions cannot be held consistently together:
- God is omnipotent (all powerful)
- God is omniscient (all knowing)
- God is omnibenevolent (all good)
- Evil exists
If God has these features, then it follows that God can and should want to prevent evil. As Mackie states, “Good is opposed to evil, in such a way that a good things always eliminates evil as far as it can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From these it follows that a good, omnipotent thing eliminates evil completely, and then the propositions that a good, omnipotent thing exists, and the evil exists, are incompatible (174).” For sake of clarity, I will define the terms “good” and “evil”, as they will be used throughout this paper. Good is interpreted as anything in harmony with God’s character, will, and goal, whereas evil is any state or condition that is contrary to His character, will, and goal. Speaking in terms of evil, I will further examine two types of evil, as one will be introduced later on in the paper. Moral evil is evil that results from an act, or failure to act, by man. For instance, murder is an evil brought about by man and therefore it is a moral evil. On the contrary, natural evil arises through no fault by man. He has no control over natural evil and is completely powerless to prevent its occurrences. Examples of natural evils are sufferings caused by diseases or natural phenomena such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and tsunamis.
The problem of evil can be distinguished between two types of philosophical aspects or challenges to faith in God: the evidential challenge and the logical challenge. The evidential challenge (also known as the inductive argument) seeks to show that the existence of evil counts against the probability of the truth of theism (defined as the belief in at least one deity). Philosophy William L. Rowe illustrates this challenge as such:
- There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
- An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.
- Therefore, there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being (Rowe, 201)
In these statements, Rowe suggests the inductive, probabilistic view of the evil argument justifies atheism (defined as either a rejection of theism or a position that deities do not exist). Evidential arguments claim that there is no good reason for God’s permission of evil. On the other hand, there is the logical challenge to belief in God, which says that it is both impossible and irrational to believe in the existence of a good, powerful God with the existence of evil in the world. A sample logical challenge would in the following form:
- A good God would destroy evil.
- An all-powerful God would destroy evil.
- Evil is not destroyed.
- Therefore, there cannot possibly be such a good and powerful God.
The logical challenge attempts to demonstrate that the assumed propositions lead to a logical contradiction and cannot therefore all be correct. In his argument from evil, David Hume inquires about the existence of God, stating that the assumed God would not possibly allow evil to exist. He asks, “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 (150)?” Being that there is more evil than good in the world, it is difficult to see how one can reconcile the existence of evil with the existence of an all-powerful, omnibenevolent God. So it seems that either God does not exist, or His characteristics are very different from what we think. It seems that either choice contradicts the traditional belief in God. However, the conclusion that we’re wrong about God follows only if God has no good reason for allowing evil. Perhaps if one can explain God’s reason for allowing evil, then the belief in God may still be rational.
There are many possible replies and solutions to the problem of evil, but I will only limit focus to one particular argument. The free will defense illustrates that God allows evil for the sake of human free will. Moreover, evil occurs because God does not want to compromise this free will be preventing evil. Speaking in terms of free will, what does it mean to necessarily be free or possess free will? As used in this paper, free will is identical to freedom of choice, or the ability to do or not to do something. The concept implies that an omnipotent God does not assert its power to intervene in choice. God’s creation of beings with considerable free will is something like the greatest gift that can be given, or in another sense, the greater good. He could not eliminate evil and suffering without eliminating the greater good of having created beings with free will. The argument simply says that God is not responsible for the evil that takes place, but rather, beings are at fault; at some point in life, a being will be faced with a situation that requires moral choice and the ability to act freely, and they may possibly choose evil (Cain). The argument gives the impression that God knows that evil occurs, God does not want evil to occur, and God has the ability to prevent evil, but evil still exists because God wants us to have free will.
In Evil and Omnipotence, Mackie argues that the traditional conceived God cannot possibly exist with so much evil and suffering in the world. Thus, the problem of evil leads to a contradiction in at least one, if not all, of the attributes of God (that being omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent). In his essay, Mackie examines what he calls “so-called” solutions to the problem: evil being a necessary counterpart to good, the universe being better off with some evil, evil acting as a means to good, and evil being the result of human free will. For objective purposes of consistency, I will only touch basis on Mackie’s response to evil being the direct result of freedom. For Mackie, the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of a Christian God. He maintains the idea that God granted free will, but then asks, “If God has made men such that in their free choices they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil, why could He not have made men such that they always freely choose the good (Mackie, 178)?” Being all powerful, God could have created a world with both free will and no signs of evil. In other words, God could have created a world where man had the ability to choose between two actions (good or bad), but from his omnipotence, He would always see it that man choose what was right. It is obvious that such a world was not created, so what does this say in terms of God’s power? According to Mackie, God’s inability to offer this possibility is a rational contradiction and limits not only his power, but his goodness as well.
Plantinga, in his response against Mackie, suggests that atheologicans (specifically Mackie) are wrong to believe that evil and God are incompatible. He argues that God, even being omnipotent, could not create a world with free beings that never chose evil. Furthermore, it is possible that even an omnibenevolent God would want to create a world that contains evil, only if such would bring moral goodness. God uses evil as a vehicle for bringing about the greater good. In efforts to refute the logical problem of evil, Plantinga tries to show that Mackie’s argument is not contradictory. In order to do so, he finds a statement that could make the claim a reasonable one and makes an addition of a necessarily true proposition to Mackie’s. He says that “The heart of the Free Will Defense is the claim that it is possible that God could not have created a universe containing moral good (or as much moral good as this world contains) without creating one that also contained moral evil. And if so, then it is possible that God has a good reason for creating a world containing evil (Plantinga, 190-191).” It is not to be taken in any way that Plantinga declares his proposition is true, but rather logically sound.
The free will defense, in my opinion, is a partial success. Plantinga’s argument is a valid justification for God’s permission of evil, but he seems to speak only in terms of one nature of evil. Yes, the evil that exists around us is a consequence of the abuse of our freedom. Not all natures of evil, however, can be explained in this way. There is much evil that is not inflicted by man. Natural evils (as described earlier in the paper) or disasters, for instance, cause great destruction, but there is nothing that man could have done to prevent them. So if the blame does not fall on man, who can we hold accountable for such occurrences? Would it be safe and logical to say that God, being the Creator of all things (nature in particular), is to blame? Of course for Plantinga he would rely on Augustine’s perspective to say that these particular evils are a result on moral evil, relating the incidents of Adam and Eve and the concept of original sin. This response would probably be the safe way out, but again it does not necessarily pose a solution to the problem of natural evils. Not everyone hold the same beliefs or interpretations of Adam, Eve, and the forbidding fruit scenario. And at this rate of thinking, his argument would only hold strong for the theist himself.
On another note, I believe that it is reasonable to say that it is better that the world contain beings with significant freedom than that it contains only automata. Evil can be seen as an instrument of God to correct, purify, and instruct (as a parent punishes his/her child). God is justified in permitting evil and suffering in terms of promoting character development; it seems that His goal would be to bring man to a point spiritual well-being and maturity. It is deemed necessary that man go through struggles in order to gain strength, a means of soul promoting, or to be conscious of certain emotions. For instance, in order for a person to know “hot”, they must inevitably know “cold”. Without being aware of the one, chances are you would not know how to distinguish between the two. In this case, in order for a person to possess happiness or feel sorrow, they must have been faced with a situation that evokes such feelings or emotions. Ultimately, perhaps God allows evil and suffering so that in the end, man will be born again and accept God’s grace and live by His word. In addition to this thought, a world without evil may not be a feasible world for those who possess free will. Everyone would always freely choose to do good acts because God would constitute everyone to do so. But if no one can choose otherwise, then no ability to choose really exists. Therefore, free will does not exist.
When it comes to the problem of evil and God’s existence, there are many questions and concerns that come to mind. Firstly, it is written in the Book of Genesis that God created man in His image. But what exactly is God’s nature? Earlier in the paper, it was established that God, particularly the Christian God, is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all good. I take this as saying that God acts as an accomplice to evil because He knows what will happen before the action is done, and yet he does nothing to get involved. He is all powerful because “through Christ all things are possible”, or at least all things logically possible. He is also all good meaning He cannot sin nor do evil. Taking this into deliberation, man (being created in His image) has the ability to do wrong and create evil. Thus, we are not “all-good”. So does this fact alone contradict God’s omnibenevolence? Secondly, God granted free will, but has no means of intervening or preventing the consequences; if this was false, then evil would not exist. Does this inability take away from His omnipotence? In a sense, I think of it as a limitation on his power because He created something that He has no control over or at least it seems that He does not. Thirdly, it is argued that God cannot actualize a world with free will and no presence of evil. If this is true, then what do you consider heaven? Heaven is supposed to be a “perfect” world. I am sure that there is free will and absolutely no evil and suffering. Why could not have God create the physical world (in which we live) as such?
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In conclusion, the problem of evil exists because man believes in an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator. Many philosophers, such as Mackie, argue that if one abolishes God himself, or at least some of His attributes, then evil needs no explanation. In response, some philosophers offer justifications for God permitting evil. The most credible of these is the free will defense, which states that there are no contradictions in God’s attributes; He is capable of destroying evil, but not at the expense of taking away free will. In my paper, I have examined the problem of evil and the concept of the free will argument, using Mackie and Plantinga’s arguments on the subject. I have given reason to both accept and reject the notion that it can be logically established that the existence of both evil and God are not incompatible. Perhaps no one will really understand God’s reason for allowing some things to happen. More so, there is a possibility that such knowledge is beyond our means of reasoning at present.
Cain, James. “Free Will and the Problem of Evil.” Religious Studies: An International Journal for the Philosophy of Religion (2004): 437-456.
Gale, Richard M. “Freedom and the Free Will Defense.” Social Theory and Practice: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal of Social Philosophy (1990): 397-42.
Gillett, Grant. “The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God.” Journal of Applied Philosophy (2007): 435-438.
Hume, David. “The Argument from Evil.” Pojman, Louis P. and Michael Rea. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2008. 147-152.
Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence.” Pojman, Louis P. and Michael Rea. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2008. 173-180.
Plantinga, Alvin. “The Free Will Defense.” Pojman, Louis P. and Michael Rea. Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2008. 181-199.
Schellenberg, J. L. “The Atheist’s Free Will Offence.” Internal Journal for Philosophy of Religion (2004): 1-15.
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