Responses to the problem of evil have occasionally been classified as defences or theodicies; however, authors disagree on the exact definitions.Generally, a defense against the problem of evil may refer to attempts to defuse the logical problem of evil by showing that there is no logical incompatibility between the existence of evil and the existence of God. This task does not require the identification of a plausible explanation of evil, and is successful if the explanation provided shows that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically compatible. It need not even be true, since a false though coherent explanation would be sufficient to show logical compatibility.
A theodicy, on the other hand, is more ambitious, since it attempts to provide a plausible justification—a morally or philosophically sufficient reason—for the existence of evil and thereby rebut the “evidential” argument from evil. Richard Swinburne maintains that it does not make sense to assume there are greater goods that justify the evil’s presence in the world unless we know what they are—without knowledge of what the greater goods could be, one cannot have a successful theodicy. Thus, some authors see arguments appealing to demons or the fall of man as indeed logically possible, but not very plausible given our knowledge about the world, and so see those arguments as providing defences but not good theodicies.
Skeptical theism defends the problem of evil by asserting that God allows an evil to happen in order to prevent a greater evil or to encourage a response that will lead to a greater good. Thus a rape or a murder of an innocent child is defended as having a God’s purpose that a human being may not comprehend, but which may lead to lesser evil or greater good. This is called skeptical theism because the argument aims to encourage self-skepticism, either by trying to rationalize God’s possible hidden motives, or by trying to explain it as a limitation of human ability to know. The greater good defense is more often argued in religious studies in response to the evidential version of the problem of evil, while the free will defense is usually discussed in the context of the logical version. Most scholars criticize the skeptical theism defense as “devaluing the suffering” and not addressing the premise that God is all-benevolent and should be able to stop all suffering and evil, rather than play a balancing act.
“Greater good” responses
The omnipotence paradoxes, where evil persists in the presence of an all powerful God, raise questions as to the nature of God’s omnipotence. Although that is from excluding the idea of how an interference would negate and subjugate the concept of free will, or in other words result in a totalitarian system that creates a lack of freedom. Some solutions propose that omnipotence does not require the ability to actualize the logically impossible. “Greater good” responses to the problem make use of this insight by arguing for the existence of goods of great value which God cannot actualize without also permitting evil, and thus that there are evils he cannot be expected to prevent despite being omnipotent. Among the most popular versions of the “greater good” response are appeals to the apologetics of free will. Theologians will argue that since no one can fully understand God’s ultimate plan, no one can assume that evil actions do not have some sort of greater purpose. Therefore, the nature of evil has a necessary role to play in God’s plan for a better world.
The problem of evil is sometimes explained as a consequence of free will, an ability granted by God. Free will is both a source of good and of evil, and with free will also comes the potential for abuse, as when individuals act immorally. People with free will “decide to cause suffering and act in other evil ways”, states Boyd, and it is they who make that choice, not God. Further, the free will argument asserts that it would be logically inconsistent for God to prevent evil by coercion and curtailing free will, because that would no longer be free will. This explanation does not completely address the problem of evil, because some suffering and evil is not a result of consciousness choice, but is the result of ignorance or natural causes (a child suffering from a disease), and an all-powerful and all-benevolent God would create a world with free beings and stop this suffering and evil.
Alvin Plantinga has suggested an expanded version of the free will defense. The first part of his defense accounts for moral evil as the result of human action with free will. The second part of his defense suggests the logical possibility of “a mighty non-human spirit” (non-God supernatural beings and fallen angels) whose free will is responsible for “natural evils“, including earthquakes, floods, and virulent diseases. Most scholars agree that Plantinga’s free will of human and non-human spirits (demons) argument successfully solves the logical problem of evil, proving that God and evil are logically compatible but other scholars explicitly dissent. The dissenters state that while explaining infectious diseases, cancer, hurricanes and other nature caused suffering as something that is caused by the free will of supernatural beings, solves the logical version of the problem of evil, but it is highly unlikely that these natural evils do not have natural causes that an omnipotent God could prevent, but instead are caused by the immoral actions of supernatural beings with free will who God created. According to Michael Tooley, this defense is also highly implausible because suffering from natural evil is localized, rational causes and cures for major diseases have been found, and it is unclear why anyone, including a supernatural being who God created would choose then inflict localized evil and suffering to innocent children for example, and why God fails to stop such suffering if he is omnipotent.
Critics of the free will response have questioned whether it accounts for the degree of evil seen in this world. One point in this regard is that while the value of free will may be thought sufficient to counterbalance minor evils, it is less obvious that it outweighs the negative attributes of evils such as rape and murder. Particularly egregious cases known as horrendous evils, which “[constitute] prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole,” have been the focus of recent work in the problem of evil. Another point is that those actions of free beings which bring about evil very often diminish the freedom of those who suffer the evil; for example the murder of a young child may prevent the child from ever exercising their free will. In such a case the freedom of an innocent child is pitted against the freedom of the evil-doer, it is not clear why God would remain unresponsive and passive.
Another criticism is that the potential for evil inherent in free will may be limited by means which do not impinge on that free will. God could accomplish this by making moral actions especially pleasurable, or evil action and suffering impossible by allowing free will but not allowing the ability to enact evil or impose suffering. Supporters of the free will explanation state that that would no longer be free will. Critics respond that this view seems to imply it would be similarly wrong to try to reduce suffering and evil in these ways, a position which few would advocate.
A third challenge to the free will defence is natural evil. By definition, moral evil results from human action, but natural evil results from natural processes that cause natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. Advocates of the free will response to evil propose various explanations of natural evils. Alvin Plantinga, following Augustine of Hippo, and others have argued that natural evils are caused by the free choices of supernatural beings such as demons. Others have argued
- • that natural evils are the result of the fall of man, which corrupted the perfect world created by God or
- • that natural evils are the result of natural laws or
- • that natural evils provide us with a knowledge of evil which makes our free choices more significant than they would otherwise be, and so our free will more valuable or
- • that natural evils are a mechanism of divine punishment for moral evils that humans have committed, and so the natural evil is justified.
There is also debate regarding the compatibility of moral free will (to select good or evil action) with the absence of evil from heaven, with God’s omniscience and with his omnibenevolence.
- Free will and animal suffering
One of the weaknesses of the free will defense is its inapplicability or contradictory applicability with respect to evils faced by animals and the consequent animal suffering. Some scholars, such as David Griffin, state that the free will, or the assumption of greater good through free will, does not apply to animals. In contrast, a few scholars while accepting that “free will” applies in a human context, have posited an alternative “free creatures” defense, stating that animals too benefit from their physical freedom though that comes with the cost of dangers they continuously face.
The “free creatures” defense has also been criticized, in the case of caged, domesticated and farmed animals who are not free and many of whom have historically experienced evil and suffering from abuse by their owners. Further, even animals and living creatures in the wild face horrendous evils and suffering – such as burn and slow death after natural fires or other natural disasters or from predatory injuries – and it is unclear, state Bishop and Perszyk, why an all-loving God would create such free creatures prone to intense suffering. Another line of extended criticism of free will defense has been that if God is perfectly powerful, knowing and loving, then he could have actualized a world with free creatures without moral evil where everyone chooses good, is always full of loving-kindness, is compassionate, always non-violent and full of joy, where earth were just like the monotheistic concept of heaven. If God did create a heaven with his love, an all-loving and always-loving God could have created an earth without evil and suffering for animals and human beings just like heaven.
Soul-making or Irenaean theodicy
The soul-making or Irenaean theodicy is named after the 2nd century French theologian Irenaeus, whose ideas were adopted in Eastern Christianity. It has been discussed by John Hick, and the Irenaean theodicy asserts that evil and suffering are necessary for spiritual growth, for man to discover his soul, and God allows evil for spiritual growth of human beings.
The Irenaean theodicy has been challenged with the assertion that many evils do not seem to promote spiritual growth, and can be positively destructive of the human spirit. Hick acknowledges that this process often fails in our world. A second issue concerns the distribution of evils suffered: were it true that God permitted evil in order to facilitate spiritual growth, then we would expect evil to disproportionately befall those in poor spiritual health. This does not seem to be the case, as the decadent enjoy lives of luxury which insulate them from evil, whereas many of the pious are poor, and are well acquainted with worldly evils.Thirdly, states Kane, human character can be developed directly or in constructive and nurturing loving ways, and it is unclear why God would consider or allow evil and suffering to be necessary or the preferred way to spiritual growth. Further, horrendous suffering often leads to dehumanization, its victims in truth do not grow spiritually but become vindictive and spiritually worse.
This reconciliation of the problem of evil and God, states Creegan, also fails to explain the need or rationale for evil inflicted on animals and resultant animal suffering, because “there is no evidence at all that suffering improves the character of animals, or is evidence of soul-making in them”.
Thomas Acquinas suggested the afterlife theodicy to address the problem of evil and to justifying the existence of evil. The premise behind this theodicy has been that afterlife is unending, human life short, and God allows evil and suffering in order to judge and grant everlasting heaven or hell based on human moral actions and human suffering. Acquinas went further and suggested that the afterlife is the “greater good” that justifies the evil and suffering in current life. Christian author Randy Alcorn argues that the joys of heaven will compensate for the sufferings on earth.
The second failure of the afterlife theodicy is in its inability to reconcile the suffering faced by small babies and innocent children from diseases, abuse and injury in war or terror attacks, since “human moral actions” are not to be expected from babies and children. Similarly, moral actions and the concept of choice does not apply to the problem of evil applied to animal suffering from natural evil and the actions of human beings.
Deny evil exists
In the second century, Christian theologists attempted to reconcile the problem of evil with an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, by denying that evil exists. Among these theologians, Clement of Alexandria offered several theodicies, of which one was called “privation theory of evil” which was adopted thereafter. The other is a more modern version of “deny evil”, suggested by Christian Science, wherein the perception of evil is described as a form of illusion.
Evil as the absence of good (Privation Theory)
The early version of “deny evil” is called the “privation theory of evil”, so named because it described evil as a form of “lack, loss or privation”. One of the earliest proponents of this theory was the 2nd-century Clement of Alexandria, who according to Joseph Kelly, stated that “since God is completely good, he could not have created evil; but if God did not create evil, then it cannot exist”. Evil, according to Clement, does not exist as a positive, but exists as a negative or as a “lack of good”. Clement’s idea was criticised for its inability to explain suffering in the world, if evil did not exist. He was also pressed by Gnostics scholars with the question as to why God did not create creatures that “did not lack the good”. Clement attempted to answer these questions ontologically through dualism, an idea found in the Platonic school, that is by presenting two realities, one of God and Truth, another of human and perceived experience.
The fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo adopted the privation theory, and in his Enchiridion on Faith, Hope and Love, maintained that evil exists only as “absence of the good”, that vices are nothing but the privations of natural good. Evil is not a substance, states Augustine, it is nothing more than “loss of good”. God does not participate in evil, God is perfection, His creation is perfection, stated Augustine. According to the privation theory, it is the absence of the good, that explains sin and moral evil.
This view has been criticized as merely substituting definition, of evil with “loss of good”, of “problem of evil and suffering” with the “problem of loss of good and suffering”, but it neither addresses the issue from the theoretical point of view nor from the experiential point of view. Scholars who criticize the privation theory state that murder, rape, terror, pain and suffering are real life events for the victim, and cannot be denied as mere “lack of good”. Augustine, states Pereira, accepted suffering exists and was aware that the privation theory was not a solution to the problem of evil.
Evil as illusory
An alternative modern version of the privation theory is by Christian Science, which asserts that evils such as suffering and disease only appear to be real, but in truth are illusions, and in reality evil does not exist. The theologists of Christian Science, states Stephen Gottschalk, posit that the Spirit is of infinite might, mortal human beings fail to grasp this and focus instead on evil and suffering that have no real existence as “a power, person or principle opposed to God”.
The illusion version of privation theory theodicy has been critiqued for denying the reality of crimes, wars, terror, sickness, injury, death, suffering and pain to the victim. Further, adds Millard Erickson, the illusion argument merely shifts the problem to a new problem, as to why God would create this “illusion” of crimes, wars, terror, sickness, injury, death, suffering and pain; and why doesn’t God stop this “illusion”.
Turning the tables
A different approach to the problem of evil is to turn the tables by suggesting that any argument from evil is self-refuting, in that its conclusion would necessitate the falsity of one of its premises. One response – called the defensive response – has been to assert the opposite, and to point out that the assertion “evil exists” implies an ethical standard against which moral value is determined, and then to argue that this standard implies the existence of God.
The standard criticism of this view is that an argument from evil is not necessarily a presentation of the views of its proponent, but is instead intended to show how premises which the theist is inclined to believe lead him or her to the conclusion that God does not exist. A second criticism is that “evil” is inferred from the “suffering” of the victims, not from “ethical standard” for the evil actor. This argument was expounded upon by David Hume.
A variant of above defenses is that the problem of evil is derived from probability judgments since they rest on the claim that, even after careful reflection, one can see no good reason for co-existence of God and of evil. The inference from this claim to the general statement that there exists unnecessary evil is inductive in nature and it is this inductive step that sets the evidential argument apart from the logical argument.
The hidden reasons defense asserts that there exists the logical possibility of hidden or unknown reasons for the existence of evil along with the existence of an almighty, all-knowing, all-benevolent, all-powerful God. Not knowing the reason does not necessarily mean that the reason does not exist. This argument has been challenged with the assertion that the hidden reasons premise is as plausible as the premise that God does not exist or is not “an almighty, all-knowing, all-benevolent, all-powerful”. Similarly, for every hidden argument that completely or partially justifies observed evils it is equally likely that there is a hidden argument that actually makes the observed evils worse than they appear without hidden arguments, or that the hidden reasons may result in additional contradictions. As such, from an inductive viewpoint hidden arguments will neutralize one another.
A sub-variant of the “hidden reasons” defense is called the “PHOG” – profoundly hidden outweighing goods – defense. The PHOG defense, states Bryan Frances, not only leaves the co-existence of God and human suffering unanswered, but raises questions about why animals and other life forms have to suffer from natural evil, or from abuse (animal slaughter, animal cruelty) by some human beings, where hidden moral lessons, hidden social good and such hidden reasons to reconcile God with the problem of evil do not apply.
Previous lives and karma
The theory of karma refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect). The problem of evil, in the context of karma, has been long discussed in Indian religions including Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, both in its theistic and non-theistic schools; for example, in Uttara Mīmāṃsā Sutras Book 2 Chapter 1; the 8th century arguments by Adi Sankara in Brahmasutrabhasya where he posits that God cannot reasonably be the cause of the world because there exists moral evil, inequality, cruelty and suffering in the world; and the 11th century theodicy discussion by Ramanuja in Sribhasya.
Many Indian religions place greater emphasis on developing the karma principle for first cause and innate justice with Man as focus, rather than developing religious principles with the nature and powers of God and divine judgment as focus. Karma theory of Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism is not static, but dynamic wherein livings beings with intent or without intent, but with words and actions continuously create new karma, and it is this that they believe to be in part the source of good or evil in the world. These religions also believe that past lives or past actions in current life create current circumstances, which also contributes to either. Other scholars suggest that nontheistic Indian religious traditions do not assume an omnibenevolent creator, and some theistic schools do not define or characterize their god(s) as monotheistic Western religions do and the deities have colorful, complex personalities; the Indian deities are personal and cosmic facilitators, and in some schools conceptualized like Plato’s Demiurge. Therefore, the problem of theodicy in many schools of major Indian religions is not significant, or at least is of a different nature than in Western religions.
According to Arthur Herman, karma-transmigration theory solves all three historical formulations to the problem of evil while acknowledging the theodicy insights of Sankara and Ramanuja.
Pandeism is a modern theory that unites deism and pantheism, and asserts that God created the universe but during creation became the universe. In pandeism, God is no superintending, heavenly power, capable of hourly intervention into earthly affairs. No longer existing “above,” God cannot intervene from above and cannot be blamed for failing to do so. God, in pandeism, was omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in the form of universe is no longer omnipotent, omnibenevolent.:76–77