Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Problem of Evil

One of the main arguments against belief in the existence of God is the so called "Problem of Evil".  According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Problem of Evil is defined as : "The epistemic question posed by evil is whether the world contains undesirable states of affairs that provide the basis for an argument that makes it unreasonable for anyone to believe in the existence of God."

For my non-philosophical readers, allow to break this down a little more neatly. The Problem of Evil is essentially the idea that if evil exists, it is highly unlikely that a God who loves and cares about humanity exists as well.

For the purposes of this article, I will be addressing the Problem of Evil as posed by my fellow philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.), known within philosophy as the "Epicurean Paradox". It goes thus: "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? 

This paradox is so powerful, that even though it was given hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is still heavily quoted within the atheistic and agnostic communities. Philosophers continue to wrestle with it even in modern times, most notably by the great philosopher David Hume in his classic work "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion."

This argument is interesting considering that Epicurus himself believed in God, but this argument gives countless others reason not to believe.

So, lets tackle the argument. First, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?" Considering that the God of most of the main religions of the world (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is considered to be omnipotent (by definition meaning all powerful), this causes a real problem. How can this God allow evil among his fellow servants?

However, let me add a fourth religion to the fray: Mormonism. For the purposes of our argument, lets assume that Mormonism is true. Within Mormonism, God (who is an exalted man) is the father of all living. Before coming to this Earth, he created all humanity as spirits, and placed before them a plan known as the Plan of Salvation. This plan would allow the spirits that God created to inhabit the Earth, with the opportunity to progress to become as God is. However, in order to do so, the spirits would have to leave his presence for a time, forget having been in his presence in the first place, and being allowed to choose to follow truth when it was presented. Since untruth (or evil) must exist in order for truth (or goodness) to exist, evil was necessary in order for humans to become like God. So, God could have prevented evil, but he would have stopped progress at the same time.

Second "Is he able, but not willing?" I went over this in this previous point, but lets review it again. God allowed evil to exist so that people would have a choice to become like him. All human beings are endowed with the gift of Agency: which gives mankind the right to act for himself and not be acted upon. So, to some extent, God had to be willing to allow evil to exist, but that does not mean he cannot prevent it. However, if God were to shield humankind from all evil, he would be doing so at the cost of not allowing people to grow and exercise their agency. He therefore is not malevolent, because even those who fail in this life will still be rewarded for trying. God has malice toward none.

Third, "Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?" Simple. Evil comes from being in opposition to God, by following that being known as the Devil. Since God created the devil, he in a sense created evil. But he created evil in a way that a person would have to choose to do evil before evil would happen. The Devil has no power over man, except if they do his will. Hence, if one does the will of God, Satan will have no power over him. As long as humanity is in disobedience to God, there will always be evil. When mankind totally does the will of God, there will be no evil.

Finally, "Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" The truth is that if a person creates something, he is able to destroy it as well. So, God is both willing and able to destroy evil, but he cannot force mankind to be his slaves. He must allow them to act for themselves, because they have the power within themselves to destroy evil.

In truth I think the question that Epicurus should have asked was this: "Who is responsible for evil, Man or God?" Allow me to answer the question with other questions. Does God make people lie? Does he make people steal? Does he cause people to commit murder? Does he cause wars? Is he the author of child abuse? Or is humanity responsible for all those things?

The natural man is an enemy to God and seeks to blame Him for the problems he has caused himself. The Problem of Evil is indeed a true problem, but it not God's problem. It is our problem.


  1. Agency. Opposition. You remark about this epicurean paradox still being quoted after 2500 years or so. The simple fact that it survived at all is amazing and a testimony to its timelessness. This provides an interesting perspective on the truthfulness of the restoration. Was Joseph really such a genius that he could introduce doctrine that solved this paradox after men had struggled with it for millenia?

  2. I'm impressed by the power of simple gospel truths as you've talked about the way that the plan of salvation contains the answer to one of the questions that has bugged mankind for ages. This helped me think about the plan of salvation in a new light. Enjoyed it.

  3. I've had this conversation with someone once. It was interesting, because I learned some new things, along with a better understanding of what I believe. In super brief summary (super brief), it went like this:

    A: If God is good, and omnipotent, he would have have created evil (or pain, suffering,etc...). There is either no good God, no omnipotent God, or no God at all.

    B: Sure he would. We need evil (and pain, suffering, etc...) in order to appreciate and understand good. [Insert cliche examples of eating your favorite food all of the time, or never feeling sick = never feeling healthy, and so on].

    A. (And this was the BEST argument I have ever heard so far on it) I think you misunderstand what omnipotence really means. If God were omnipotent, you would not need to experience evil to appreciate good. He could (changes the rules of the universe and) make you feel good. You wouldn't need to learn from your mistakes, because he could make a universe where we DON'T need to learn from mistakes. He could literally bend reality to MAKE it so that all of the arguments for evil (see my examples above, including agency) are wrong. Isn't that what omnipotence means?

    B. (Genuinely saying this:) That is actually really good. We can't put a limit on His omnipotence, right? Let me think... (time).

    No. I understand what omnipotence means. But I think you misunderstand what omniscience really means. If God is omniscient, then he knows all. We, by definition, CANNOT know more than, or equal to God, unless we were also omniscient. Therefore, we cannot dictate what God would do, because he, by definition, knows more things than we do.

    You say that God could change the rules of the universe so that evil is not needed, but I say that God may have a reason not to, and no logic or reason you can come up with, by definition, is as good as His. So we are at a stalemate. Evil does not prove God's existence. But it certainly does not prove his lack of existence, or omnipotence. God can be both Omnipotent and benevolent and allow evil, if he is also omniscient. Therefore, your assertion is without merit.

  4. Meant to say "*not have created..." in line 4.