Motivating the Problem of Evil

“Should everything you read be fun?”

Students have trouble caring about the traditional Problem of Evil: whether God should have created an evil-free universe. And while discussions of free will do pique their interest, they distract from the truly motivating feature: the classical theological problem is really one of what we think our own lives should be.


1. The Traditional Problem of Evil

There shouldn’t be evil…or so the reasoning goes. If God is all-powerful, then God can get rid of evil, and if God is all-good, God wants to get rid of evil. Yet evil persists, both natural (earthquakes, famine, and disease) and moral (murder, genocide, and good old-fashioned fibbing). The Problem is an apparent incombatibility between these three claims:

a) God is omnipotent
b) God is omnibenevolent
c) Evil exists

So does that mean that God’s power is limited (i.e., God wants to get rid of evil, but just can’t)? Or that God’s goodness is limited (i.e., God could get rid of evil, but doesn’t want to)? Neither seems a good option. So the question becomes, “Could a good and powerful being want evil in the world?”


2. God’s Goodness and Free Will

People often think of free will as a possible source of evil: our ability to decide what to do unconstrained by external forces means that we are free to make colossal mistakes and bring evil into the world. If freedom of the will is valuable enough, then, we might deny that an omnibenevolent God wants to get rid of evil. Keeping free will in might just be more important than keeping evil out.

But students aren’t really compelled by the value of free will (most don’t think that their actions are determined and the ones that truly consider it are normally excited enough about science to feel like determinism [the denial of free will] is kind of cool). Besides, freedom of the will is at best a plausible explanation of moral evil alone (after all, what’s the connection between free will and tsunamis?).

Moreover, a discussion of free will is tangential to the Problem of Evil. On the free will view, evil is collateral damage. What students need, then, is a discussion of whether evil might be important, not as a consequence, but intrinsically. Otherwise it seems an omnipotent God could have created the truly valuable thing (the free will) without the bad consequence (evil).


3. Practical Evil and the Good Life

Ask students: is evil useful?

It does not take long for them to realize that pain, suffering, war, disease, and the like can certainly be useful. Pain helps us protect ourselves from damage. Infections build up our immune systems. Challenging circumstances do the same for our character: we find ourselves steeled after holding fast in the face of adversity. Rivalries amongst friends can also motivate us, even if they trace their origins to jealously or pride. And no group is ever as unified as when there is some moral or natural enemy arrayed against it. Evil can be useful, and that seems clear evidence that an all-good God might NOT seek to rid the world of evil.

But the problem is more gnarly than this. Even if evil is useful, one might worry that evil is only useful in a world where evil exists (a world with frustration, sickness, and betrayal: what good is a strong immune system in a world without sickness?). So the question isn’t whether evil could be good in some sense (it clearly is): it’s whether a world with evil can be better than a world without evil, full stop. Only that will tell us how we can understand what an all-powerful, all-good God should do.

To confront this question, students fall back on the difficulty and frustration in their own lives. They think about the difference between beating easy video games and difficult ones, between beating their little brother at chess (meaningless) and beating their older sister (profound!), between reading something easy (like the funny pages) and something difficult (like philosophy). To figure out whether they can make sense of an all-good God desiring evil, they must think about whether they’d rather live a life entirely of beating their little brother in chess, or whether it’s worth living in a world of getting whipped by their sister for years before they finally checkmate her king. The first world is stripped of evil, but it also seemed stripped of accomplishment (as everything is fun and easy). The second is, at times, frustrating, difficult, and painful. But it’s also got promise.

Suddenly, deciding whether God should have created an evil-free universe isn’t a mere theological problem: it’s the problem of which world we pick. It’s the problem of how we aim our own lives: at only fun and ease or (sometimes) at challenge and adversity.

So next time you discuss the Problem of Evil, ask your students:

“Should everything you read be fun?”


About benjaminjh

Benjamin Hassman is Director of the Conversation Center ( and a Lecturer in the Rhetoric Department at the University of Iowa. The Conversation Center builds on his experience with Service-learning, peer-leadership programs (like the Berwick Boys Foundation) and teaching for the Rhetoric Minor, including Speaking Skills, Advanced Speaking Skills, and the Conversation Center’s own RHET 2090 Conversation Practicum (based on an experiential learning model). His PhD in Philosophy of Language studied paradoxes, and their implication for how we understand the relationship between our sentences and the world.
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4 Responses to Motivating the Problem of Evil

  1. Jeremy Dickinson says:

    Cool post, Ben. I’ve got a couple replies.

    1- This might be a minor point, depending on one’s view of God’s attributes, but might you not also need God’s omniscience added to 1-3 above to draw out an inconsistent quartet. God might have the power and the desire to prevent evil, but if he lacks knowledge, forget about it. (If you believe that God is simple and that his attributes are therefore perfectly unified to be identical to each other, then in theory you only need one of the attributes–all you need to do is make it clear that you proscribe to Divine Simplicity.)

    2- At the end of section 2, you write:

    “On the free will view, evil is collateral damage. What students need, then, is a discussion of whether evil might be important, not as a consequence, but intrinsically.”

    I was struck by this passage at first because I immediately took it to be saying that students need a discussion of whether evil is intrinsically good! Then I thought that this can’t be what you intended. The word ‘important,’ I thought needed to be clarified, which you seem to do later, which brings me to my main point here. When you go on in section 3 to identify the intrinsically important feature of evil, you identify it with usefulness. As I tried to wrap my mind around evil being intrinsically useful, I was struck again. I came to think about whether the very nature of evil is such that it is useful, and though part of me wanted to assent here, I just couldn’t. So, could you help me out and give me a plausible reason for thinking that evil is intrinsically useful? A couple initial reasons for thinking that its not are (a) Evil lacks intrinsicality at all–it is mere privation (a la the Augustinian view), and (b) it just *seems* that some evil isn’t beneficial–it is actually harmful–e.g., a child gets run over by her father in his cement truck (true story) seems harmful to the child and the parent. Perhaps you have in mind here that evil may not be pro tanto useful, but it is all things considered beneficial. But I would find this distinction doubtfully helpful.


    • benjaminjh says:

      Thanks for the comment Jeremy!

      I’ve certainly thought about the necessity of omniscience (what if God has the power and the desire to end evil, but just doesn’t know how to do it?), but if your goal is motivating the problem for students, I think the simpler version gets them more easily to where they’re considering why an all-Good being might want evil around (the real question of this post).

      Your second point is well taken, and the more that I think about it, I’d put my view like this:
      Evil is necessary to achieve certain sorts of intrinsically valuable things. Thus, a world with evil is (or can be) intrinsically more valuable than a world without. It’s not a happiness view, though I’m not sure how I’d describe the relevant notion of intrinsic value.

      In some sense, the post is about a connection between the Problem of Evil and the classic claim from On Utilitarianism that the competent judge will always choose intellectual pleasures over physical pleasures. Why would God choose a world including evil? For the same reason we might read Thomas Pynchon. It’s better because it requires effort, because it’s not hedonistic in the basest sense of the word, but rather what you might call (if you’ll forgive the flourish) Hedonistic Achievement.

      Evil as a privation seems to imply a hard and fast dichotomy that I guess I don’t find ontologically plausible. I do think that evil is harmful: it’s just that I think some valuable things are such that they require harmful things to achieve. I’ve heard the story of the father backing over his daughter, and I don’t think it’d be a consolation to him (i.e., I don’t think he’d choose it if given the choice) but coming to terms with great loss, the randomness of the universe, and grave errors are all great achievements only possible when you have loss to overcome, and make grave errors. Does that make the errors good? No. They’re evil. But those evils do open doors in ways that make me think the world might be a better place for their existence (even if individual lives are actually worse because of them).

      Perhaps I’m taking “No pain, no gain,” too seriously!

  2. Jeremy Dickinson says:

    Hi again Ben,

    If I’m right, you take the problem of evil to be the problem of reconciling God’s existence with the existence of evil. I’ve taken the problem of evil to be the problem of showing that God’s existence is at least highly doubtful given the existence of evil. Then, as I’ve thought about it, there is the task of trying to provide at least possible justifying reasons for God’s allowance of evil–or, I shouldn’t leave out, explaining away the existence of evil. In any case, most of this is probably bookkeeping.

    Are you familiar with the higher-order goods theodicy (or defense, in Plantinga’s use of the term)? This theodicy (I’ll discuss this as a theodicy only, for simplicity) has it that God allows lower-order evils in order for higher-order goods to develop. So, God allows pain and suffering so that we become prudent, compassionate, beneficent, etc. And, the lower-order evils are supposed to be necessary for beings like us to achieve the higher-order goods. Of course, the higher-order goods (plus the lower-order goods–pleasure, etc.,) must outweigh all the lower-order evils for God to be justified in permitting the lower-order evils.

    I bring up this theodicy because it appears to me to be formally similar to your effort to provide a reason for God’s permitting evil. You want the evils to be significant or necessary for other good things; presumably, you want these other good things to be of a higher quality than the evils. (You mention Mill’s higher-lower pleasure distinction in this regard.) These are things that many students would be able to latch on to–it seems to come up naturally every time I teach the problem of evil.

    Here’s the problem with this line of thinking–not that it would count against motivating the problem of evil, but it would be be good to have this in mind (if you don’t already). So: What about the higher-order evils that seem to result from lower-order evils? Pain and suffering make people bitter, spiteful, maleficent, etc. Now it seems that we’re in for a tough task of figuring whether God’s higher-order goods reason here is justified. Lots of apparently impossible value weighing would seem to follow.

    Still, you might be able to motivate a version of the higher-order goods theodicy by appealing to the claim that God just needs to take His chances with the higher-order evils. Why? Because both God and we want to live in a world where the evil that’s permitted has the chance to make us better, that the world without even the lower-order evils, is one that is not even attractive to us when we really think about it. And for this we need in some sense to put up with the higher-order evils.

    I don’t think my effort in the last paragraph works exactly, but it’s a sketch that one might want to continue pursuing.

    Finally, my previous claim about evil being a privation wasn’t supposed to be taken as a suggestion for you. It was supposed to be taken as an argument against the claim I took you to be making that evil has intrinsically beneficial properties. The thought there was that if evil is a privation, then presumably it has no nature at all, let alone these intrinsically beneficial properties!

    Finally again, I think about Epicurus’ claim in his “Letter to Menoeceus” when we claims that pain and suffering are intrinsically evil, but then says that often they are not to be avoided because they can lead to good things. Pain and suffering are still by their nature evil, but they can lead to good things. I’m very tempted to say that Epicurus is wrong. It’s that not all evils are intrinsically bad. They’re not intrinsically good either. But they do have value. Extrinsic value only. Indeed, the view I am tempted to endorse has it that pain, suffering, etc., can be extrinsically good or bad, depending on what they lead to. It seems that you are more in agreement with Epicurus on these issues, though. Do I have you roughly right here?


  3. benjaminjh says:

    Hey Jeremy:
    Lot’s of interesting stuff in here (and I had a longer answer that got erased, so sorry for brevity).

    The main thing I really like about your comments is the worry about higher order evils. There’s a really nice analogue here for students thinking about their own lives: if they can work to understand a simplistic problem of evil (take pain) in terms of whether they’d accept pain in their own lives, then the higher order worry can be put in terms of their lives as well: if they do accept pain, then isn’t it a worry that the pain will lead to higher order evils like spite and bitterness? That really pushes the discussion forward and layers it in an interesting way for anyone teaching the Problem of Evil.

    In terms of Epicurus, I’m a bit torn, and I think it shows up in my earlier responses. I want to say the way I present the Problem of Evil to students lends them to thinking about the necessary connections between certain evils and certain benefits. But I put it in terms of necessary connections because I don’t have considered views about values. Off the top of my head, I want to say that valuing is mental thing, not an intrinsic property of the world (i.e., nothing is intrinsically good and nothing is intrinsically bad). And yet I feel comfortable categorizing some things as good (like friendship) and others as evil (like rape). So are these MY valuations, or something different? I’m not sure I have an answer to that, but I can say I’m sympathetic to Epicurus’ line of thinking: something’s being intrinsically evil doesn’t mean it must be avoided ultima facie and doesn’t mean it cannot lead to good or even great good. You seem in line with this, but I think you’re right that the difference is mostly “bookkeeping” (I like your phrase!): a scale from no intrinsic value to great intrinsic value seems very similar to a scale from negative intrinsic value to great intrinsic value.

    I really like this idea of pushing students with the further consequences of their short-term decisions, as it really seems to me to push them in the right direction. In the end, it’s a matter of putting students in a position to use their own experiences to make sense out of the philosophical problem. And this connection between our own lives and philosophical inquiry is key in my mind to a fruitful experience for our students.

    Again, thanks for the comments and discussion! Interesting stuff, as always.

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