English 233:  Introduction to Western Humanities -- Baroque & Enlightenment

Glossary of Terms

"the problem of evil"

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In the history of ideas, the phrase "the problem of evil" has a quite definite meaning.  It does not refer to any of the many practical problems that confront human beings in virtue of the fact that the world is full of bad things.  Rather it refers to a particular intellectual quandry that confronts a certain subset of monotheistic theologies.  By a theology we mean a system of religious belief -- that is, a collection of beliefs that are logically interconnected, so that one can reason from some to others.  A monotheistic theology is one that includes the belief that there is one and only one god.  But monotheisms can be divided into two sorts:  those that assert that this god is perfect, and those that do not.  Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are examples of religions (or distinct families of religions) that insist that God is perfect.  But people outside these traditions have also entertained the idea that there exists a single god, but also that this god is subject to certain limitations.  Some, for instance, have held that God, though surpassingly intelligent, is nevertheless not omniscient, or that, though impressively powerful (perhaps even the creator of the universe), God is nevertheless not able to accomplish everything he or she might wish to bring about.  And it has been maintained that this supreme being is not all-good (at least not in the sense of being completely just, and being lovingly concerned with the welfare of his creatures), but more or less indifferent, at least to human kind, or even possessed of a sadistic streak.

It is only those theologies that assert that God is perfect that raise the problem of evil in our sense of the term.  (We'll call such theologies perfectionist.)  The problem of evil is an intellectual quandry, insofar as the assumption that God is perfect involves us in an apparent contradiction with certain evident facts of life.  How is this so?  Consider the following layout (whose elements we will number for ease of reference down the line).  Pay special attention to the system of indentations (and parallelisms) and to the portions highlighted in purple.  These together are the "logical indicators" that express the logical structure of the quandry as a whole, which consists not just of a collection of elements (numbered here) but of these elements as inhering in a particular network of relationships, such that affirming certain things commits one to affirming (or denying) certain other things, and yet some of these things cannot sensically be simultaneously affirmed.  (That is, the truth of certain elements, taken together, is -- or appears to be -- logically impossible, so that at least one of its elements must be false.)

Work carefully through the following structure, incorporating elements (1) through (20).  Take time to appreciate the thrust of the logical indicators, expressing equivalence, entailment (or, conversely, dependency), and inclusion.  When elements get referred to merely by number, be sure to check back to see what the element is that that number refers to.  This kind of deliberate back and forth reflection is the only way to grasp the force of a structure.

(1) Piety,(2) via faith, affirms that

(3) God is perfect.  (4) This proposition is understood to include that 

(5) God is omniscient (equivalent:  is all knowing).

(6) God is omnipotent (equivalent:  is all-powerful).  (7) This proposition entails (see how?) that

(8) God is not himself created. That is:  (9) God is eternal;.

(10) God is the creator of everything that exists, except himself; and

(11) God is able to do anything he wishes (wills).

(12) God is omnibenevolent (equivalent:  is all-good, in the sense that he always wills the best).  This means that

(13) God is completely just.

(14) God is infinitely loving, caring.

At the same time

(15) Observation (that is, through our senses, including our sensitivity to bodily pain) combined with

(16) our moral intuitions (that is, our conscience)

convince us that

(17) the world exhibits many physical and moral evils.  Explication: 

(18) The category "physical evil" includes floods, droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, plagues of locusts, diseases, etc., and the miseries attending them.

(19) Moral evils embraces abuse by people of others (murder, theft, cheating, rebellion, war, etc.) and the suffering caused by this.

But in view of (10) above, (19) entails that

(20) God's creation is full of much evil.

Now:  compare (20) with (11), in light of (14).

Do you see the problem?


We can sum this up by saying that the perfectionist monotheist who thinks out the implications of his commitments will experience a bind between what piety urges him to have faith in and what his eyes and conscience testify to:  how can a perfect Creator preside over an imperfect creation?  More specifically:  how can a just and loving God ordain or permit moral and physical evil?

The attempt to explain how this can be is known as  theodicy.  The job of theodicy is to demonstrate the justice of God in ordaining or allowing the existence of moral and physical evil.  [The term comes from the Greek words theos <God> and diké <right, justice, judgment>.  Hence:  the defense of the justice of God in ordaining or allowing the existence of moral or physical evil.]  One can seek to do this either by arguing that evil is illusory (i.e., by denying proposition 17 above) or by arguing that though evil is real, nevertheless there is some special way of understanding the whole situation in terms of a divine plan at work behind appearances that, though evil is genuine, its presence in the creation does not entail the imperfection of the Creator.  To refuese theodicy is to deny that God is perfect, which one can do either by denying the existence of divinity altogether, or by adopting some version of polytheism, or be insisting that, although there is only one God, he is limited in knowledge or power or goodness.

  Go to the general discussion of theodicy.


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      Contents copyright © 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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      This page last updated 13 February 1999.