Addressing the Allowance of Evil

How can a good God allow evil? Here is a place where philosophy shifts its focus to the practical. How do we make sense of the suffering all around us, and is the suffering consistent with the existence of a good God? The problem of evil is that if God is all-knowing, all-powerful and all good, as envisioned by classical theism, then how did he create a world with so many qualities of misery? The argument from evil grows beyond that to claim that such a God with the presence of evil is irreconcilable and therefore, the existence of evil provides at best proof and at least evidence against the existence of God. The problem of evil begs the argument for atheism.

Hume draws attention to the magnitude of evil present in this world and argues that the overwhelming evidence points to the absence of God. Hume describes two types of evil, the evils external to man and those internal to him. External evils are those faced by all living creatures, men and animals alike. There is competition for basic resources like food and security, there are preyed upon victims, inflicted pains from stings, snake bites and an overall misery in the mere act of attempting to stay alive. Humans, in particular, face a twistedness even in good things. The pleasures of one man can be the temptations of another and lead to addictions and destruction. Even the respite of sleep is filled with the anxiety of nightmares. In addition to these, there are the miseries that man does to one another. “Oppressions, injustice, contempt… treachery, fraud,” Hume’s list grows long as he stacks up the evidence to show that the quantity of evil in this world is immense (1). Hume then turns to internal evils, which are the sickness of both our mind and body. These internal evils range from illness to the internal workings of minds filled with anxiety, anger and avarice. There is no part of the human experience that escapes from the plagues of evil.

In order to encompass both the agentive and non-agentive harms that Hume describes, evil can be categorized into moral evils and natural evils. Moral evils encompass all that is caused by an agent— murder, dishonesty, betrayal, selfishness and so forth—that have a will-driven actor who causes those evils to occur. Natural evils are the harms present in the world with no agent who instigates them— famine, plague, natural death, and the like.

The force of his ultimate argument comes from the sheer amount of evil that one can witness in this world and if not in quantity, then in quality as “one hour of [pain] is often able to outweigh” a month. Against the agony of evil, even the best pleasures in life cannot compete (1). He ultimately claims that there is more evil in this world than good. In light of such imbalance, Hume concludes that there is no God. One issue in Hume, and of other formations of the argument from evil, is that there is no concrete definition of good and evil. In Hume’s writing evils include feelings of pain and suffering that are sort of lumped into natural evils. However, one might endure frustration to study Greek or a small child may feel misery at seeing another get something she wants. These are bad feelings and disagreeable to humans but are more aptly described as things men do not like. There is a possible sense that if men’s pleasures are not aligned with some external objective good, then things that are contrary to men but aligned with good may actually feel like pain. As a note, although experienced as a natural evil or feeling, these may in a sense be agentive. All of this is to say that Hume and others need to be clear about what evil means and it needs to be closer to things “contradictory to a benevolent being” in order to fit in the logical argument and make a claim against God’s nature, rather than things that men do not enjoy. This is similar to Augustine’s conception of the source of evil and plays an added role in understanding the creation of evil out of the institution of man’s free will. Another slight modification to Hume’s argument is that the language of balance between good and evil is not true. Even the smallest evil would pose a challenge to the nature of God and require a theodicy.

The argument from evil can be broadly summarized by two main arguments, the logical argument, and the evidential argument. The evidential argument acknowledges the possibility of coexistence between God and evil but claims that the unlikelihood that in the face of so much evil there could be a good God who also designed it. The logical argument seeks to show an illogical contradiction between the two premises. To support the logical argument, there must be no possible world where the two statements can coexist. From the principles of Hume’s work, the logical argument can be framed as follows: A benevolent God in accordance with his nature will have benevolent intentions. Being almighty, he cannot create a world “contrary to his intention” (1). If one defines omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient beings as great beings in Anselm’s sense, then in short, [1] a great God creates a good world. [2] We have some (caused) bad world. [3] Therefore, there is no great God. The logical argument aims to show that there is a contradiction between the existence of God and the reality of evil in the world. To expand [1], a great God must create a good world in which there is no evil. In light of such a contradiction, the claim that God exists must be rejected because it is illogical and contradictory to the presence of evil.

Leibniz responds to Hume and [1] by saying that the presence of evil does not negate God’s good intentions. Rather, “God has permitted evil in order to bring about good” (2). There is a possible world where God’s will may be for some greater good, and in order to accomplish that good, some harms must be either allowed or undertaken. One objection to Leibniz’s argument is that he seems to portray a God who uses evil means to make good ends. That would assume his argument is that committing evil for some greater good is morally good. This is dangerous because those evil actions would need to be called good, in which case the argument that these ‘evil acts’ contradict a benevolent nature would no longer apply because those acts would be good. Additionally, God cannot act contrary to his own nature. If he is the actor in these evils, and he cannot act contrary to his nature, then these actions must be part of his nature. That would mean that God is actually not ‘good’ (according to what men see as good) which is the whole issue at hand here.

Leibniz’s approach seeks to remove God from being the actor of those evils. Instead, the greater good is a world where God “allow[s] certain creatures the opportunity of exercising their liberty” which requires only the existence of a potential for evil for the sake of a greater good rather than evil itself. That is, the potential for evil is what accomplishes the greater good and not the actual harms. The free will agents are the ones that commit the acts themselves. He argues that God has a foundational will or desire that man should not sin, but has a second or “decreeing” will that creates a world that allows for man to have the opportunity to sin, because such permission will achieve greater goods. Leibniz calls these the antecedent and consequent wills of God. In this way, God does not violate his own nature by being an agent of evil himself, but only an agent of the potential for evil (and also the potential for moral good). Leibniz answers Hume’s argument that the benevolent will of God and the existence of evil in this world are contradictory.

Although God is moved away from direct agent to bystander, this may not necessarily remove his complicity in the evil that occurs. However, Leibniz does address this by responding to the general argument that God is “an accessory” of evil by observing and allowing it to happen. He says that there may be instances where God should not intervene “because he could not do it without himself committing a sin”, or because of his morally good nature, commit an act that is contradictory or “unreasonable”.

Although this addresses God’s intentions and wills, it does not address his actions which are to allow evil to happen. Though he may desire that evil does not occur, he has created such a world in which there is evil. Now the question becomes, why did God choose to create a world that allowed evil rather than one that did not. The dilemma is found that God creates a world with some bad-making potential as opposed to one without bad-making potential. If he has chosen this potential, then it again speaks to his benevolence (or rather lack thereof) and the dilemma is found again. Plantinga restates the logical argument with that in mind in the following way (3).

[1b] God is good, omnipotent, and omniscient (let’s call this great). [2b] There is evil. [3b] A great being “properly eliminates every evil that it can properly eliminate”. [4b] If God is great, “he can properly eliminate every evil state of affairs”. Because [3b] and [4b] are contradictory, then one of them must be false. Claim [3b] is assumed to be true, as it comes from a conception of what it means to be a good God. The argument from evil concludes: [5b] the premises of [4b] must be wrong and denies that God must be great. Plantinga argues instead that a great being actually cannot eliminate every evil state of affairs.

He argues that are some kinds of goods that are intrinsically related to the existence of some evil. The presence of the former requires the presence of the latter. One such example is the existence of moral good. In order for there to be a world with moral good, there must be a world with moral evil. Free will requires that a being is “free to perform the action” and “free to refrain from performing it”. In order for man to be able to realize his free will, he cannot be constantly coerced away from all evil actions. The alternative choice, to divert from God’s will, must be a legitimate option that he can pursue in order for him to have free will. In a binary choice, man either “freely takes” or “freely rejects”, and one of them must be true in the possible world. Because of this, there are “possible worlds such that it is partly up to [the man] whether or not God can actualize them”. Here, through free will where man chooses to align his will against God, evil becomes an option. Thus, it is possible for God, in order to have a world where man’s free will aligns with God’s (moral good) there must be the possibility for man’s free will to not align with God (moral evil), and achieving the former requires the latter to be present. God is not the agent of the evil; rather, man in the freedom of diverting from the benevolence of God creates and actualizes evil.

To create a world with moral good he “could not have actualized just any possible world” but rather he must create a world with moral evil. The existence of evil does not negate God’s ability to be all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful and claim [4b] is false. Therefore, a benevolent God’s existence and creation of the world is compatible with the presence of evil in it.

However, this possible world that requires free will as a good and therefore allows man to act in accordance with evil does not provide a reason for natural evils, only the moral evils, as those do not have an agent exercising his will as their primary cause. In addition, Plantinga’s argument seems to allow for the potential existence of evil, and not necessarily evil itself. Man’s ability to have free will comes from God merely allowing the potential for evil to happen, not necessarily the actualization of it. What is the justification for the vast extent of man’s ability to inflict harm? Why does man need to be ‘quite so free’, so to speak, as to allow catastrophic horrors whose effects go far beyond that one single man, and even on to subsequent generations? This hints back to the emotional side of Hume’s take on the problem of evil, which is concerned not just with the existence of evil, but its scale and how it seems to overwhelm even the existence of good. Both, however, move past the logical argument and begin to contend more with the evidential argument. There are two reasons why one could consider moving past this objection to Plantinga. Being ‘quite so free’ to do evil also makes one equally as free to choose to do good. To truly have the option to do one requires not being limited in doing the other. From another angle, one begins to wonder how patient God must be to endure creatures who so constantly go against his will. Secondly, if eternity is real and God is infinite, and God is good, there is a possible world where the good will one day overwhelm the evil and lessen the current weight that it bears. Leibniz speaks to this saying “the good may and does go to infinity, while evil has its bounds” (2).

Ultimately, the logical argument’s defeat comes by showing that the existence of evil and the existence of a great God is not necessarily contradictory. In fact, in order to have a world in which there is moral good, and beings can choose moral good, there must also be a world where there is a real and present ability for beings to choose moral bad. Men, exercising their free will to not choose God’s will (that is, in an Augustinian conception not choose goodness) cause evil to exist in the world. With that in mind, the theistic arguments from Leibniz and Plantinga achieve their goal to show why the allowance of evil may be a necessity without negating God’s benevolence, though there are many questions still to be addressed.


[1] Hume, David “The Argument from Evil.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 7th ed. Ed. Michael Rea, Louis P. Pojman, Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 232–236. Print.
[2] Leibniz, Gottfried “Theodicy: A Defense of Theism.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 7th ed. Ed. Michael Rea, Louis P. Pojman, Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 237–242. Print.

[3] Plantinga, Alvin “The Free Will Defense.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 7th ed. Ed. Michael Rea, Louis P. Pojman, Cengage Learning, 2014, pp. 300-318. Print.
[4] Photo: https://unsplash.com/photos/w95BkIgqkqY

About The Author

EO is a book-loving, rambling little writer at MWG. She drinks her tea with milk, has an irrational fear of heights (but loves ziplines) and once read all three volumes from the Lord of the Rings in a week.

1 thought on “Addressing the Allowance of Evil

  1. No doubt our world consists of much evil and much good. But a human being has free will and the ability to choose which direction to follow. God gives us so much good and the devil brings the evil into our lives and the world we live in. Our human nature allows us to choose many good activities, good behaviors, good people in our lives. We hope to make good choices for our lives but sometimes we make a bad choice or decision. Or we find ourselves among bad individuals doing bad things.
    Asking God for his help, for us to make good decisions, for us to live our life in a good way, can help to keep the evil away.

    Praying, reading the bible, asking for God’s assistance, brings us closer to God and will allow much more good than evil in our lives. Yes, bad things still can happen but we can always ask God above, to help us get through the bad/difficult situation. Put your faith in him. Many times the bad situation can ultimately lead a person to more obtain more good in the end. When it is over and done.

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