Why is there evil?

One of the interesting philosophical questions about God is known as the Problem of Evil. The argument goes: If a) God is loving, b) God is all-knowing, and c) God is all-powerful then d) evil would not exist. Since evil does exist, there must not be a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God.

Typically, theists counter the Problem of Evil with the Greater Good Defense. God can permit evil, they say, as long as doing so is necessary for a greater good. The trick is to show why evil would be necessary for a greater good. You’d think an all-powerful, all-wise God could figure out a way to make things good with no evil.

For example, I believe the greater good is freedom. In order to create free creatures, I would argue, God must allow us to do evil. Yet a universe with evil and freedom is better than a universe with neither, so our good God created a universe in which evil exists, for the sake of freedom. It’s worth it to God ( and should be worth it to us) to have evil around if it allows freedom.

I said that in order to create free creatures, God must allow us to do evil. Doesn’t this contradict God’s being all-powerful? If God can do anything, then He can also create free beings who must always make the right choice, right?

No.Because that would be a contradiction in terms. Even though God is all-powerful, that does not mean He can do things that are logically impossible. He cannot create a square circle, for example, because there is no such thing. He cannot create a universe with freedom and no possibility of evil because there is no such thing. Or so I would argue.

Strict Calvinists believe that the greater good is God’s glory. In order to fully display His holiness, mercy, and justice, God had to create those who would rebel against Him (Romans 9:17-23).  A universe that glorifies God in that specific way and has some evil in it is better than a universe which does neither. It’s worth it to God (and should be worth it to us) to have evil around if it glorifies God.

The Calvinist answer sounds a little bit like a suggestion my students often make: that without evil, we wouldn’t learn to appreciate the good. I find this less convincing. It raises as many questions as it answers.

  • Why do we need to suffer in order to value good? Isn’t that inability itself a symptom of our hard-heartedness, our indifference to the good? If we were perfect, wouldn’t we be able to value good without suffering? Isn’t God able to?
  • Perhaps we need to know about the concept of evil to understand the concept of good, but why do we actually have to experience it? Does God need to experience evil to appreciate good?
  • There’s a difference between natural evil / suffering and moral evil / sin. If the point of evil is to teach us to value what is good, wouldn’t suffering have been enough? Wouldn’t it have been better for God to create a world in which people occasionally suffered but it was no one’s fault than a world in which people do what is wrong?
  • When we’ve experienced suffering once, is that enough? Does the memory of suffering help us appreciate the good from then on? Or do we have to suffer again and again throughout eternity?
  • Does how much we suffer affect what we can appreciate? If we only need a little suffering, why is there so much horrific suffering in the world? If we need great suffering for great joy, why do some of us get off so lightly?

Another answer many of my students gave was the Learning From Our Mistakes Defense. Here’s a quote from one student in a recent paper:

“If everything was good, everyone would be  perfect and no one would ever do anything wrong. The only way we learn is by experiencing. As a young child, you do not believe your parent when they tell you not to climb on something because you will fall and get hurt. You start believing them when you do fall and get hurt. If God never allowed evil into the world and allow us to be tempted, we would never learn the difference between good and bad.”

This can’t be right. The student seems to be saying that we need to learn the difference between good and bad in the sense of learning what to do. But that reduces the argument to: if we never did anything wrong, we could never learn not to do wrong. Of course, if we never did anything wrong, we wouldn’t need to learn not to do wrong, so I think the free will response makes more sense!

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