polar opposition

Problem of evil

In the philosophy of religion and theology, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the existence of God. The problem is most often discussed in the context of the personal god of the Abrahamic religions, but is also relevant to polytheistic traditions involving many gods.


Most theists respond that a perfect being may still allow some evil, asserting that it will enable certain greater goods, such as free will, which can not be achieved without allowing some evils. A defense against the problem of evil attempts to establish that the divine attributes are logically consistent with the existence of evil, but does not commit to any positive explanations as to why these evils occur. A theodicy, on the other hand, is an attempt to provide such justifications for the existence of evil.

Richard Swinburne maintains that it does not make sense to assume there are such greater goods, unless we know what they are, i.e., we have a successful theodicy. Many contemporary philosophers disagree. Skeptical theism, which is based on the theological position that humans can never expect to understand the divine, is perhaps the most popular response to the problem of evil among contemporary philosophers of religion.


Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt

The problem of evil takes at least four formulations in ancient Mesopotamian religious thought, as in the extant manuscripts of Ludlul bēl nēmeqi (I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom), Erra and Ishum, The Babylonian Theodicy, and The Dialogue of Pessimism. In this type of polytheistic context, the chaotic nature of the world implies multiple gods battling for control. In ancient Egypt, it was thought the problem takes at least two formulations, as in the extant manuscripts of Dialogue of a Man with His Ba and The Eloquent Peasant. Due to the conception of Egyptian gods as being far removed, these two formulations of the problem focus heavily on the relation between evil and people; that is, moral evil.


Epicurus is generally credited with first expounding the problem of evil, and it is sometimes called "the Epicurean paradox" or "the riddle of Epicurus."

"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" — Epicurus, as quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief

In this form, the argument is not really a paradox or a riddle, but is considered by some critics as being a reductio ad absurdum of the premises. Epicurus drew the conclusion that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of the gods, who care about the matters of mankind, assuming absolute concepts of benevolence, knowledge, and power. More generally, no paradox or problem exists for those who do not accept the premises, in particular the existence of a benevolent god or gods. The assumption of a benevolent divine principle, however, was not only a central concept for both classical and later schools of philosophy, but continues to be one of the essential assumptions of Christianity to this day.

Epicurus himself did not leave any written form of this argument. It can be found in Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and in Christian theologian Lactantius's Treatise on the Anger of God where Lactantius critiques the argument. Epicurus's argument as presented by Lactantius actually argues that a god that is all-powerful and all-good does not exist and that the gods are distant and uninvolved with man's concerns. The gods are neither our friends nor enemies. The stronger form most people know of Epicurus' problem of evil is actually David Hume's formulation of the problem of evil in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

"[Gods] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?"

Marcion, the 2nd century Christian theologian, is presented by Tertullian in his Adversus Marcionem as presenting this puzzle: "Why does God, who is all powerful and has foreknowledge of the future, allow evil?" Marcion's answer is that God is in part evil himself.

Biblical Tradition

The biblical Book of Job is, perhaps, the most widely known formulation of the problem of evil in Western thought. In it, Satan challenges Jehovah God regarding his servant Job, claiming that Job only serves God for the blessings and protection that he receives from him. God allows Satan to plague Job in a number of ways, with the limitation that Satan may not take Job's life. Job, not understanding what has transpired unseen to him in heaven, questions God regarding his suffering, which he finds to be unjust. God responds by challenging Job in return with a series of questions revealing his power and understanding, after which Job repents.

Another formulation of the problem of evil is the story of the biblical character Joseph in the Book of Genesis. Here, Joseph says that whereas his brothers meant evil by selling him into slavery, God meant it for a greater good, to save many people (from famine) (Genesis 50). Other books of note include Psalms 1 and 82, and Ecclesiastes (Koheleth).

Traditional Jewish Interpretations

An oral tradition exists in Judaism that God determined the time of the Messiah's coming by erecting a great set of scales. On one side, God placed the captive Messiah with the souls of dead laymen. On the other side, God placed sorrow, tears, and the souls of righteous martyrs. God then declared that the Messiah would appear on earth when the scale was balanced. According to this tradition, then, evil is necessary in the bringing of the world's redemption, as sufferings reside on the scale.

Traditional Christian Interpretations

Augustine and Pelagius

In the 5th Century, Pelagius denied the Augustianian answer to the paradox of original sin. Augustine's answer was the Limited Sovereignty argument, which stated that Adam and Eve had the power to change nature by bringing sin into the world, but that the advent of sin then limited mankind's power thereafter (to evade the consequences). The problem of evil then asks: "Is God's creation still good?" Pelagius argued that death is a natural part of the universe. Both he and John Chrysostom believed that Christians, through their baptism, are free to make moral choices; that, although their wills cannot affect the course of nature, it can — and must — affect their moral decisions. Eastern Orthodox theology holds that one inherits the nature of sin but not Adam and Eve's guilt for their sin which resulted in the fall. This view, however, does not exclude the possibility that death came about as a result of human action. Pelagius' main argument was that God is just, and it would be unjust to punish many people for the sin of two people. Adam and Eve sinned, but universal mortality cannot be the result of their sin alone. Mortality must be the result of some other cause, which Pelagius held was simply the structure of nature. Pelagius' position is regarded by most Christian denominations as a heresy due to man being able to stop sinnning by his own accord and not needing God in order change his inherited sinful nature. Augustine's position on the issue is discussed further in the section on Criticisms and responses below.


Origen, an early Christian scholar and theologian, suggested that the problem of evil was a misnomer. Origen's response to this was the concept of Apocatastasis. Simply stated, the ends justify the means. That is, all of creation is reconciled by its purpose of facilitating freewill. The concept can be traced in the works of St Clement of Alexandria, St Isaac of Syria, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Gregory the Great and St Maximus the Confessor. Modern versions of the argument can be found in some of the writings of Dostoevsky (see the Devil's conversation with Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov and in Stepan Verkhovensky's play in The Possessed) though Dostoevsky himself never expressed his endorsement of the idea.

Contemporary Christian and Christian Scientist Interpretation

Mary Baker Eddy

Mary Baker Eddy (the founder of the Christian Science movement) regarded evil as an illusion. Consequently, neither she nor her followers have a philosophical problem with the concept of an almighty and wholly good deity. In regard to the question as to what caused or causes the illusion of evil, Christian Science responds that the question is meaningless, and furthermore that enquiring into the origin of the illusion of evil tends to reinforce it, since such an enquiry would strengthen the belief that evil is real. Mary Baker Eddy writes: "The notion that both evil and good are real is a delusion of material sense, which Science annihilates. Evil is nothing, no thing, mind, nor power." (Eddy, Mary Baker, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, 1971, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Boston, p. 330.)

Peter Kreeft

Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft provides several answers to the problem of evil and suffering, including that a) God may use short-term evils for long-range goods, b) God created the possibility of evil, but not the evil itself, and that free will was necessary for the highest good of real love. Kreeft says that being all-powerful doesn't mean being able to do what is logically contradictory, i.e., giving freedom with no potentiality for sin, c) God's own suffering and death on the cross brought about his supreme triumph over the devil, d) God uses suffering to bring about moral character, quoting apostle Paul in Romans 5, e) Suffering can bring people closer to God, and f) The ultimate "answer" to suffering is Jesus himself, who, more than any explanation, is our real need.

Specific Arguments

One example among many of a formulation of the problem of evil presented by Epicurus may be schematized as follows (this form of the argument is called 'the inconsistent triad'):

  1. If a perfectly good god exists, then there is no evil in the world.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, a perfectly good god does not exist.

This argument is of the logically valid form modus tollens (denying the consequent). In this case, P is "God exists" and Q is "there is no evil in the world". Other logical forms of arguments articulating the problem follow. Most philosophical debate has focused on the first premise, questioning the statement that God is unable to coexist with evil. Since the publication of Alvin Plantinga's free will defence, the majority, though not unanimous, view among contemporary scholars is that logical arguments from evil are not successful.

Logical problem of evil

  1. God exists. (premise)
  2. God is omnipotent and omniscient. (premise — or true by definition of the word "God")
  3. God is all-benevolent. (premise — or true by definition)
  4. All-benevolent beings are opposed to all evil. (premise — or true by definition)
  5. All-benevolent beings who can eliminate evil will do so immediately when they become aware of it. (premise)
  6. God is opposed to all evil. (conclusion from 3 and 4)
  7. God can eliminate evil completely and immediately. (conclusion from 2)
    1. Whatever the end result of suffering is, God can bring it about by ways that do not include suffering. (conclusion from 2)
    2. God has no reason not to eliminate evil. (conclusion from 7.1)
    3. God has no reason not to act immediately. (conclusion from 5)
  8. God will eliminate evil completely and immediately. (conclusion from 6, 7.2 and 7.3)
  9. Evil exists, has existed, and probably will always exist. (premise)
  10. Items 8 and 9 are contradictory; therefore, one or more of the premises is false: either God does not exist, evil does not exist, God is not simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient and all-benevolent, or all-benevolent beings who can eliminate evil will not necessarily do so immediately when they become aware of it.

Evidential problem of evil

As argued by Paul Draper in a seminal article in Noûs (1989), the evidential problem of evil goes as follows:

  1. Gratuitous evils exist.
  2. The hypothesis of indifference (HI), i.e., that if there are supernatural beings they are indifferent to gratuitous evils, is a better explanation for (1) than theism.
  3. Therefore, evidence prefers that no god, as commonly understood by theists, exists.

Argument from evil natural laws and processes

  1. A god is omnipotent, omniscient, and all-benevolent.
  2. If a god exists, then there exist no instances of ultimately evil natural laws or processes.
  3. The laws of predation are ultimately evil.
  4. There are instances of the laws of predation.
  5. Therefore, no god exists.

Inductive argument from evil

  1. All evil in the kinds of created entities are the result of the fallibility of one or more of its creators. (Premise)
  2. The universe is a created entity. (Premise)
  3. The universe contains evil. (Premise)
  4. Evil is the result of the actions of a fallible creator(s) or is not the result of any creator(s). (From 1, 2 and 3 by predictive inference)
  5. If god created the universe, then he is fallible. (From 4)
  6. Therefore, god did not create the universe, is imperfect, or does not exist. (From 5)

Argument from the biological role of pain and pleasure

  1. Consider the following observations:
    • Moral agents experiencing pain or pleasure we know to be biologically useful.
    • Sentient beings that are not moral agents experiencing pain or pleasure that we know to be biologically useful.
    • Sentient beings experiencing pain or pleasure that we do not know to be biologically useful.
  2. The observations in 1 are more probably the result of natural law than a god.
  3. Therefore, probably no god exists.

Criticisms and responses

In Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal, a well-known essay written in 1710, Leibniz introduced the term "theodicy" to describe the formal study of this subject. This term is also used for an explanation of why God permits evil to exist without it being a contradiction of his perfect goodness.

Definition of "evil" as an absence of good

The fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo mounted what has become one of the most popular defenses of the existence of God against the Epicurean paradox. He, and before him the Platonists, maintained that evil was only privatio boni, or a privation of good, much like darkness is an absence of light. An evil thing can only be referred to as a negative form of a good thing, such as discord, injustice, and loss of life or of liberty. These are all defined in terms of a spectrum with its lowest absolute being zero (injustice being the absolute lack of just decision or action). If a being is not totally pure, evil will fill in any gaps in that being's purity. This is commonly called the Contrast Theodicy — that evil only exists as a "contrast" with good. However, the Contrast Theodicy doesn't completely solve problem of evil, as even if the apparent existence of suffering and evil in the world are illusory, the question remains why God neglected to create those goods that are found to be lacking in the world.

Definition of "evil" as a necessary opposite

The related concept of Yin and Yang (known as "Taiji") is used in Eastern thought to illustrate complementary opposing forces (positive/negative, light/darkness, male/female, heat/cold, good/evil) as an unchangeable and necessary law of nature. Such forces always exist and are opposite yet inseparable from each other by their very nature, because they can only be defined in terms of their opposite. This dualism is thus similar to Contrast Theodicy, but differs in that opposites are generally referred to as on opposite sides of a zero; thus, evil is an opposing force to good with a neutral equilibrium.

In addition, yin and yang are not only traditionally depicted as complementary, but comingling and incorporating the other. No force or object is perfectly yin or yang; the darkest night fills the sky with stars, while the brightest day creates that much more difference in the shade of a tree. Similarly, no action or person is perfectly good or evil; there is always some good inherent in evil, and some evil inherent in good.

A criticism of this thinking is that such dualism requires all opposites to be describable in an infinite spectrum, with "zero" as an equilibrium point between opposing forces that can have infinite effect. In physics light and heat are usually described quantitatively, with darkness and cold being their absence as is argued in Contrast Theodicy. They have no positive limit, but do have a finite negative absolute. Thus, many physical concepts used as metaphors for good and evil and described as similar according to Taiji in fact have no negative, only a complete absence. The counter is generally a difference in the definition of a "force" in terms of affecting change. Heat affects a positive change in temperature, while cooling affects a negative. Heat and cold therefore affect opposite change, and are thus opposing forces. Similarly, good as a metaphysical force acts in a constructive manner, while evil acts destructively. Both affect change in society towards order or chaos. In creating opposite effects, they are defined as opposing forces.

"Evil" suggests a moral law

Another response to this paradox argues that asserting "evil exists" would imply a moral standard against which to define good and evil (see also Argument from morality).


The problem of evil is often phrased "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Some religions answer that good people simply do not exist. For example, some forms of Christianity teach that all people are inherently sinful and that only God is good. Therefore, humans, being imperfect, must live in an imperfect world, and in an imperfect world, bad things happen, caused both naturally (e.g. disasters) and by humans (e.g. crimes).

Free will

St Irenaeus (circa 130 - 202AD) argued that God gave us free will, but the consequence of that endowment was the possibility of evil, both moral and natural.

  • God's aim when he created the world was to make humans flawless, in his likeness (as in Genesis)
  • Genuine human perfection cannot be ready-made but must develop through free choice.
  • Since God had to give us free choice, he had to give us the potential to disobey him.
  • There would be no such potential if there were never any possibility of evil. If humans were made ready-perfected, and if God policed his world continually, there would be no free will.
  • Therefore, the natural order had to be designed with the possibility of causing harm (natural evil), humans had to be imperfect (moral evil), and God had to stand back from his creation (not police it - deism). Otherwise humans could not develop.
  • Humans used their freedom to disobey God, causing suffering.
  • God cannot compromise our freedom by removing evil.
  • Eventually, however, evil & suffering will be overcome and everyone will develop into God's likeness, living in glory in heaven. This justifies temporary evil.

Criticisms of this Irenaean theodicy include the denial of free will; the assumption that God exists in order to prove that he exists despite the existence of evil (begging the question fallacy); and the denial of the existence of evil itself (e.g. Nietzsche, Ayer).

In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine of Hippo also argued that Epicurus had ignored the potential benefits of suffering in the world.

Some argue that God allows evil to exist so that humans can have free will. The argument runs as follows:

  • Free will requires the potential to do anything one chooses. (premise, or by definition)
  • Thus, free will requires the potential to do evil.
  • Thus, removing the potential to do evil would remove free will.

Having concluded that potential for evil is a prerequisite for free will, they argue that favoring the presence of free will over an absence of evil is consistent with the concept of a powerful, benevolent god.


Ditheistic belief systems (a kind of dualism) resolved the problem of evil by positing that there are two rival great gods, that work in polar opposition to each other. Examples of such belief systems include Gnosticism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and in a way those currents of Christianity and Islam comprising the Devil, although the latter tend to define some kind of asymmetry between the two deities' capabilities. While the concept of omnipotence is difficult to hold in ditheistic belief systems, "asymmetrically ditheistic" belief systems as described above can't logically adhere to the omnipotence of one of the opposing forces as the omnipotent one then could simply rid itself of the other. Thus generally, ditheistic belief systems are technically not subject to the problem of evil because its source is evident.

By religion


In Hinduism, the problem of evil is present but does not exist per se as souls are eternal and not directly created by God. In Dvaita philosophy, jivas (souls) are eternally existent and hence not a creation of God ex nihilo (out of nothing). The souls are bound by beginningless avidya (ignorance) that cause a misidentification with products of nature (body, wealth, power) and hence suffering. In effect, Hinduism identifies avidya (ignorance) as the cause of evil and this ignorance itself is uncaused. Suffering from natural causes are explained as karmic results of previous births.

Moreover, even within the realm of avidya, "good" and "evil" are an individual's deeds and God dispenses the results of an individual's actions but has the power to mitigate suffering.(see Karma in Hinduism and Hindu answers to the problem of evil)


The problem of evil is generally considered in Buddhism as a basis for not believing in a benevolent creator god, which Buddhism considers to be self attachment to false concepts. For instance, in the Bhûridatta Jataka the Bodhisattva sings:
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why does he order such misfortune
And not create concord?

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and ignorance
And he such inequity and injustice create?

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be the Lord
Then an evil master is he, (O Aritta)
Knowing what's right did let wrong prevail!


Mutazilite view

Mu'tazilis identify evil as something that stems from free will and human imperfection, arguing that if man's evil acts were from the will of God then punishment would be meaningless. Mu'tazilis do not deny suffering from non-human sources such as natural disasters, and explain this "apparent" evil through the Islamic doctrine of taklif - that life is a test for beings possessing free will.

See also



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