Dr Tom Kerns
North Seattle Community College

the problem
possible solutions
the question

Discussion question

The Problem of Evil

Please respond in the class forum to the question posed at the end of this page

The classical "problem of evil" is one that has been around for millennia. In one way it can be seen as purely a philosophical or academic quandary that could somehow be solved with an appropriate philosophical insight and argument.

In another sense, though, it is a more-than-academic question. When the problem is encountered in one's personal life experience it often becomes an existential problem, i.e., a problem that affects one's whole life.

When our life is still in the age of innocence and we still believe that everything that happens in the world is just and right, we see no appearance of contradiction between the Ways of Justice and our experience in the world. Nothing that we experience in the world radically violates our sense of how things ought to be.

But at some point it may happen in a life that someone you love deeply and someone you know to be a good person (perhaps this person might even be you) has the tragic misfortune of having to undergo a great and undeserved suffering. When you see that happen, when you watch that good person undergoing such enormous undeserved evil, it violates every sense of justice we have understood up to that point.

We feel outrage, perhaps even anger, and we feel deeply incensed that any just universe could allow such an unjust and evil thing to happen. If we have grown up believing in God or in some great Order operating in the universe, we are liable at that point to feel great anger at God, and deeply outraged that he (or she) is not the just and righteous being we originally believed.

Sometimes that anger can be so deep and severe that, in the heat of this outrage, one turns their back on any belief in God or justice or order in the universe.

(Someone may believe, if they think only superficially about this problem, that it is a problem only for those who have grown up with a belief in the traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic God. Deeper reflection will disclose, however, that the problem exists for anyone who believes -- or has believed -- that there is some great just order in the universe, i.e., for anyone who believes in a larger moral order in things, who believes that things ultimately happen as they ought to, and that nothing in the universe is fundamentally out of its rightful place. Even for those non-religious people who believe in such an over-arching cosmic order, the problem of evil is a real one.)

Sometimes when a person gets very angry at another person, they will literally turn their back on them, or walk out of the room, out of their presence, or perhaps even refuse to speak or listen to the person at whom they are so angry. It is almost as if they are in some sense trying to act as if that other person does not even exist.

In a similar way, it can also happen that when someone gets very angry at God for such a perceived violation of all the principles of justice, fairness, and good order in the universe, they can also furiously turn their back on God. They might no longer speak or listen to that God, and may even in their own mind come to act as if that God no longer exists in any form at all.

The problem of evil then becomes existential, and not just academic. This happens when one directly experiences the seeming contradiction between what they have believed about God (just, fair, kind, loving, good, powerful, etc) and what they have just seen happening in their experienced world to a good person whom they love deeply.

This is the problem of evil.

In philosophical terms it can be described thus:

The classical "problem of evil" consists in the apparent contradiction between the nature of God and the nature of evil and suffering in the world

 The Problem

The apparent contradiction

 God is:

 Evil (Heb. "rah")


  • All good, all just, all loving and kind

  • All powerful, capable of absolutely everything, with no limits whatsoever (omnipotent)

  • All knowing and aware (omniscient)

Evil and suffering exist in the world

Classes of evil and suffering

1. Human suffering

a. Caused by human sin

  • by one's own sin (deserved)
  • by others' sin (undeserved)

b. Caused by chance or fate (undeserved)

2. Animal suffering (all animals)

a. Caused by human irresponsibility (undeserved)

b. Caused by fate or chance (undeserved)

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There is, as we see, a large amount of undeserved suffering in the world, both in the human realm and in all the living, animate, non-human realms.

How could justice allow so much suffering to occur among beings who do not directly deserve it.

Solutions that thinkers have suggested include the following:



Possible Solutions

Since the problem results from the apparent contradiction between these two realities, any real solution will have to entail an alteration or a denial about one side or the other of the contradiction

So, possible solutions include:

 Change beliefs about God

Change beliefs about evil

  • God is not all good (Jung, Answer to Job)
  • God is not all powerful (Rabbi Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People)
  • God is not all knowing
  • There is no God at all (atheism)
  • All evil in the world is the result of human free will, bad choices, irresponsibility and sin, and hence is deserved. Therefore there is no undeserved suffering.
  • There is no REAL evil (i.e., no real injustice) in the world's suffering. All suffering works out just as it should and ultimately is in accord with true justice and God's will. That is, all the suffering in the world is the direct or indirect result of God's will (Leibnitz)

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Three Questions for you

  1. How would you describe, in your own words, what the classical "problem of evil" is? (Big hint: it involves an apparent contradiction.)

  2. What answer would you give to someone who raises "the problem of evil" to you? How would you make sense of this apparent contradiction between God being all good and all powerful, and all the experience of undeserved pain, suffering, and evil in the world?

  3. Which side of the contradiction does your proposed answer change?

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