‘A’ Level Philosophy and Ethics
The Problem of Evil
The Problem of Evil summarised!
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.
Composer: John Du Prez
Author: Eric Idle
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings, From the Album 'Monty Python's Contractural
He made their brutish venom. Obligation'
He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous,
All evil great and small,
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.
Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid--
Who made the spikey urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did!
All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small,
Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.
The traditional concept of God =
• God is omnipotent (all powerful)
• God is omniscient (all knowing)
• God is completely good
Yet: A completely good, all knowing and all powerful God would prevent evil
Yet evil exists.
Some would add:
Therefore God doesn’t exist. If this being cannot eliminate evil, (or would
not!) it isn’t God.
Possible Alternative solutions:-
1. Weakening the status of God makes the existence of Evil easier to
account for, but also makes it harder to ascribe the name “God”.
2. God only exists in the language of believers. Talk of God is a way of
affirming religious belief. God is not therefore an external reality, so
cannot take responsibility for evil.
3. Rather than change God’s goalposts, move evil’s. Christian Scientists
claim that evil is an illusion of the mind. The problem of evil is only an
Categories of Evil
Natural or Physical Evil Moral Evil
Natural Disasters, cruelty in the The evil that comes from the
animal world &c. “If God created actions of men. Men are free
the world, why did he not make it agents, responsible for their actions
to function without suffering?” and the consequent results.
For someone who believes in God, the existence of evil is a clear problem.
How can a compassionate and caring God (such as the Christian God)
tolerate the suffering of an innocent child? What kind of God do Christians
actually believe in?
Theistic Explanations for Evil
1. Evil as Non-being
Plato, the Neo-Platonists (e.g. Plotinus) and Aquinas would saw that evil is
non-being. God is “ens realissimum”, the source of all perfection. Below
Him stretches a great Chain of Being, each link being less perfect and less
real than the one above. God is absolute reality and absolute perfection.
The opposite end of the chain is absolute imperfection.
Evil is nothing in itself, merely an absence of good. Since every degree of
perfection is necessary to the fullness of perfection as a whole, every form
of imperfection must exist.
Idealistic Philosophy, e.g. Hegel, regarded evil as an illusion, necessary to
the perfection of the world. Rather than concentrate on a particular act or
event, we are invited to stand back and look at the “big picture” and see
the act in context. Iago is necessary to the story in Othello, as is the
imperfection of Othello’s love. Life is a tragedy in which good only
overcomes evil through struggle.
The Absolute Perfection argument relies on there being a single power.
How if there are two, ranged against each other?
Early (and many not so early) Christians saw the Universe as the
backdrop for a mighty struggle between a Good God, and an opposing Evil
Power. However, Satan does not provide a philosophical explanation for
the existence of evil (cf. Genesis: the serpent predates the Fall - how did
it get there, especially after God “ saw that everything that he had made
was very good”?) Talk of Christ defeating the powers of evil, e.g. by
Luther or Aulen, can be seen as symbolic, not philosophical.
Some modern theologians see God as a part of the created order,
engaged in the struggle to overcome the disorder of the universe.
(Despot = from δεσπωτης despotes, master or lord. Not necessarily
This is a particularly “oriental” view of sovereignty, where the ruler’s will
is law (cf. The Islamic view of Allah’s will). In such a system, there is no
written or unwritten constitution, and the ‘Law’ can change at the whim of
John Calvin saw God as a Despot, and developed the idea of
predestination. Subsequent Protestant Theologians have “copped out” by
refusing to address the question , stating that God is God, and we are not
Christianity has traditionally preferred to emphasise God’s Fatherhood -
His relationship to Humans has been one of Paternal love. Christians have
also preferred to think that God wills that which is right, rather than a
thing is right because God wills it.
4. Moral Theory
Rather than seeking to limit God’s power, or to suggest that God’s will is
beyond understanding, some suggest that God is limited by His own
nature, one of righteousness, truth and love. God cannot will something to
be good instantly any more than He can will 2+2 to equal 5. Goodness
involves valuing certain things over others, and a value cannot be
imposed. It has to be freely chosen. God created Man to choose to do
good. For man to choose to do this, the World in which he lives has to
include three things which add up to evil, pain and suffering.
• serves a useful biological purpose. It enables a sense of
preservation and survival (e.g. a child feels pain when it puts its
hand into a flame, but it learns not to do it again!).
• serves a spiritual purpose. Experience of pain can be character-
building (N.B. Not in the Tom Brown Schooldays sense!)
Yet so much pain seems meaningless.
The sheer arbitrary meaninglessness, size and scale of suffering renders
the understanding numb. It seems trite to suggest that millions starve
in order that a loving response can be provoked in others. Yet many
have seen the world,. and its attendant suffering, and a foundry through
which the soul is forged:
“Call the world, if you please, ‘the Vale of Soul-Making’”
Keats: Letter to George and Georgina Keats, 21st April 1819
Through responses to suffering, individual and collective, Human values
emerge, and humans define their humanity through suffering and the
association with suffering.
For many Christians suffering is a preparation for the next life. Present
suffering is made bearable by the promise of future glory.
Rom 8:18 (RSV) “I consider that the sufferings of this present
time are not worth comparing with the glory
that is to be revealed to us.”
This sense of suffering as a purifying experience is true in Hinduism,
where suffering is seen as a part of a person’s Karma, laid up in
previous lives to be endured in this. Through a series of lives a soul
ascends the “ladder” of birth and rebirth before Moksha or reunification
with the Divine. Hindus accept suffering because they believe that it is
the result of previous actions.
3. Moral Evil
For many, Moral evil is where the problem lies:- How can God have
created evil? Christians understand this position as one of alienation
with God, yet redeemed by God. Christians see the problem of evil as
lying in the relationship between God and Man, of the Creator who also
redeems. This Christian response understands evil in terms of Man’s
misuse of his independence, and of God’s redeeming and reconciling
actions through Jesus Christ.
You need to understand two specific attempts to explain the paradox
of a Loving God presiding over a world with suffering and evil.
§ Augustine of Hippo
While it is not a part of the course, you might want to take a look at
“The Brothers Karamazov” – see the A Level website for text, and also
the Notes on “The Free Will Defence”.