Q: What is the Problem of Evil?

A: One questioner asks “Why do kids get cancer? Why are little girls raped and abused? Why does God allow the innocent to suffer? Why doesn’t He stop the suffering if He can?” Before resolving a problem such as this one, it can sometimes be helpful to state the problem in a formal way.

Epicurus is generally credited with uncovering the problem, as evidenced by Lactantius’ polemic against Epicurus’ findings:

What happiness, then, can there be in God, if He is always inactive, being at rest and un-moveable? if He is deaf to those who pray to Him, and blind to His worshippers? [lacking omniscience] What is so worthy of God, and so befitting to Him, as providence? [lacking omnipotence] But if He cares for nothing [lacking omnibenevolence], and foresees nothing, He has lost all His divinity [note: Epicurus’ necessary conclusion]. What else does he say, who takes from God all power and all substance, except that there is no God at all? [notes mine] (Lanctantius, On the Anger of God)

And again, he says – in direct response to Epicurus,

God, says Epicurus, regards nothing [premise 1: lacking omnibenevolence]; therefore He has no power [conclusion: lacking omnipotence]. For he who has power must of necessity regard affairs [premise 2: inferential relationship between omnibenevolence and omnipotence]. For if He has power, and does not use it, what so great cause is there that, I will not say our race, but even the universe itself, should be contemptible in His sight? [notes mine]

From Lactantius’ comments, Epicurus’ trilemma can be deduced. Hume later states the problem in simple form, offering an excellent base for defining the problem. Hume says,

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? (David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays on the Immortality of The Soul and Suicide, Richard Popkin, ed., (Hackett Publishing, 1980), 63)

The problem of evil revolves around certain assumed perfections in the character of God, that seem to be contradictory to observed reality – specifically the reality of evil. While Epicurus deals with the incompatibility of each of the three perfections (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) with the existence of evil, Hume simplifies the issue, focusing on only two horns of the dilemma – namely the incompatibility of omnipotence and omnibenevolence with the existence of evil, yet the more complex form is more useful for purposes here, since it presents the problem in more complete form. The more complex form of the argument can be framed in propositional form as follows:

Premise 1: If G is X then G is A (If God is existent then God is omniscient)
Premise 2: If G is X then G is B (If God is existent then God is omnipotent)
Premise 3: If G is X then G is C (If God is existent then God is omnibenevolent)
Premise 4: If D is X then G is not A (If evil is existent then God is not omniscient)
Premise 5: If D is X then G is not B (If evil is existent then God is not omnipotent)
Premise 6: If D is X then G is not C (If evil is existent then God is not omnibenevolent)
Premise 7: D is X (evil is existent)
Conclusion: G is not X (God is not existent)

Given the positive truth value of the premises, the conclusion necessarily follows. This obviously creates a very significant theological conundrum which can only be resolved if it can be shown that any one of the premises is false.

If Premise 1 is false, then omniscience is not prerequisite to the existence of God. God theoretically could possess omnipotence and omnibenevolence and yet lack omniscience, the lacking of which allows for the existence of evil without logically nullifying His existence. In this case, God is powerful enough to eliminate evil, and he is morally perfect enough to want it eliminated, but He does not have the knowledge either that it exists, or of how it should be eliminated.

If Premise 2 is false, then God has the necessary knowledge and the desire to eliminate evil but lacks the power to do so.

If Premise 3 is false, then God has both the knowledge and the power to eliminate evil but does not desire to do so.

If Premises 4, 5, or 6 is false, then the existence of evil does not constitute a contradiction to one or more of the perfections asserted of God.

If Premise 7 is false, then there is no problem at all, since evil is non-existent.

Resolving the problem of evil, then, will rely upon the faultiness of one or more of the premises. Now that the issues at stake are clear, we can move toward resolving the problem.