There’s a popular dinnertime prayer that goes, “God is good. God is great. Let us thank him for our food. By his hands, we may be fed. Give us Lord our daily bread.” According to this prayer, God is an omnibenevolent being that provides his creations with resources for survival. But wait, not everyone has food. In America and around the world, millions are without proper nourishment. How can God be good if there are so many people starving?
Philosophers typically identify three divine attributes of the Christian God: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. The existence of evils, such as lack of food, seems to threaten one of these attributes. If God is good and all-knowing, but there is evil in the world, then he must not have the power to stop it. If God is good and all-powerful, but there is evil in the world, then he must not know the evil is happening. However, if God is both all-knowing and all-powerful, but there is evil in the world, then God must not be completely good. Accepting any of these conditions leads theists into an inescapable and intolerable problem. If God is not omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, then he lacks his three essential properties and wouldn’t be God.
Definition of the Problem of Evil
The problem of evil requires theists to explain why there is evil in the world while still retaining God’s divine attributes.
How It Works
Although he was not the first person to talk about the problem of evil, it’s enlightening to consider how 17th-century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz imagined God’s creation of the world. Leibniz believed that since God is omnipotent, he had the power to create any possible world. Since he is omniscient, he knew what every possible world contained, and since he is omnibenevolent, he chose to create the best of all possible worlds. It was as if God flipped through a catalog of worlds and actualized the very best one, which, of course, is the one in which we live. There would be no possible reason for God to make a less than maximally optimal world if he is all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good.
However, it’s probably disheartening to think that our world is the best of all possible worlds. Surely, there must be something better than this – a world without the looming threat of climate change, perhaps, or at least one where you can eat as much cake as you want without getting sick. Furthermore, some things in the world, like cancer, genocide, or natural disasters, are not just non-optimal; they are simply evil. If God exists and has the three divine attributes, he knows of the evil in the world, he can stop it, and he will stop it. Yet, there is still evil in the world. Atheists argue that there is a logical contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil; therefore, God does not exist.
Theists must respond to the problem of evil by arguing that the existence of God and the existence of evil are compatible. To do this, theists typically use the free will defense to reconcile God with evil, which argues that evil exists on account of human beings making bad choices due to their free will. Human freedom is better than the absence of evil in the world. Therefore, when God was choosing to create a world, he prioritized free will instead of perfect goodness. Human freedom, but not the idea of God, is incompatible with the absence of evil.
Although the free will response may cover God’s allowance of human evils, it says nothing concerning natural evils. What is the purpose of tornadoes, hurricanes, and droughts? Human free will has nothing to do with these occurrences. A broader reply to the problem of evil that can account for the existence of natural evils is that some evil is necessary for God’s ultimate plan. For example, consider that your ultimate goal is to get a good grade on a test. However, in order to earn a good grade, you must endure the pain of studying. A good grade on the test is more important than the pain of studying, so you study. In the same way, God must allow some evil in order to achieve his ultimate goal.
The problem of evil continues to trouble theologians. If the appeal to the greater good explains the existence of evil, one must wonder if our present world is also the greatest good, or as Leibniz said, the best of all possible worlds. Yet, it certainly seems that the world might be a tiny bit better without disrupting the entire chain of justifying evils. Did a loved one really have to get sick in order for God to actualize the greatest good? The theist would argue, however, that the necessity of each evil is for God to know and for us to trust and find out.