Is the problem of evil fatal to traditional theism?

Heythrop College is a specialist philosophy and theology college of the University of London. Every year they hold an essay competition for Sixth Form students in Britain. This year, there was a choice of two titles:

Is the problem of evil fatal to traditional theism?

How do you know you are not a brain in a vat?

I choose the former title. The deadline was today. Here follows my offering (with minor variation in the format):

If there is a powerful, all-knowing, omnibenevolent God, why is there evil and suffering? In this essay, I will argue that, though the problem of evil is a challenge to traditional theism and will never be fully resolved on earth, it is not fatal to traditional theism. However, first we must define what we mean by “the problem of evil”, “fatal”, and “traditional theism”.

The problem of evil can be defined as the apparent discrepancy between the notion that God exists and the notion that evil exists. It can be divided into two main problems. Firstly, there is the logical problem, which is the apparent logical contradiction between the notion of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God and the existence of evil.

Secondly, there is the evidential problem, that the evidence of evil in the world apparently suggests that there is no God. William Rowe is a contemporary proponent of the evidential argument from evil. He accepts that it is logically possible that an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God would permit evil to exist, he argues that evil and suffering are evidence against God’s existence, and therefore it is unreasonable to believe that God exists.

For the sake of this essay, I will define traditional theism as the core theological doctrines of the three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. According to traditional, or classical, theism, God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipresent. In contrast to the withdrawn and non-interventionist god of Aristotle and Plato’s philosophy, the god of traditional theism is immanent in the world and loves his creatures, caring deeply and providing for them. He is just and merciful. Moreover, orthodox believers of the three Abrahamic faiths do not believe that evil doesn’t exist, is subjective or is an illusion. All this means that, theologically, evil and suffering provide a formidable challenge to those with the traditional theist view of God and of the world.

Finally, what do we mean by “fatal”? For the problem of evil to be fatal to traditional theism is another matter from it being challenging to traditional theism, or making it improbable. For it to be fatal, it must conclusively prove traditional theism to be false. Only a logical argument could do this, and therefore this essay will focus primarily on the logical problem.

To illustrate the logical problem of evil, the Australian philosopher J.L. Mackie used the Inconsistent Triad of (a) God’s omnipotence, (b) God’s omnibenevolence and (c) the existence of evil. According to Mackie, if any two of these notions are true, the other is false. Since all three of these propositions are true according to traditional theism, we must show that they are not mutually incompatible.

So how do proponents of the logical argument from evil argue that these three ideas are mutually incompatible? In Evil and Omnipotence, Mackie states that we need “additional premises” to show that they contradict each other. His two additional premises are the following:

(1)  A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can.

(2)  There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.

Let us deal with them each in turn.

“A good thing always eliminates evil as far as it can”

On the face of it this seems true. But is it? First of all, is it a necessary truth? You might argue that it is, since any good thing will love what is good, and therefore hate what is evil. It is certainly necessarily true that, as Mackie says, good is opposed to evil, and therefore a truly good person hates evil. You might then plausibly argue that if one truly hates evil, then one will do everything in one’s power to eliminate it.

The problem is that a good thing is not fundamentally defined as a thing that is opposed to evil. The fundamental nature of a good thing is that it loves what is good, and therefore wants the maximum and deepest amount of good possible.

Therefore, for a good thing, the aim of eliminating evil is second to the aim of maximum goodness. A good person truly hates evil, but his love for what is good is greater than his hatred for what is bad. It is  possible for there to be a case in which a good person will have the power to eliminate a certain evil but must instead allow it in order to further his necessary aim: to maximise the good.

In conclusion, we ought to amend this premise to “a good thing eliminates evil as far as it can without compromising its ultimate aim to maximise good.”

“There are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do.”

Is this quite true? Firstly, remember that we are defending traditional theism, and when most, though not all, prominent traditional theists have talked of God’s omnipotence, they mean his power to do all that is intrinsically, or logically, possible. However, to refute the statement logically, I invite you to take part in the following thought experiment:

Let’s imagine that there was a totalitarian ruler who had the power to control people’s every action. Now, imagine he introduced a law that all men must be married by the age of twenty-five, yet remain bachelors until the age of forty. The truth is, no matter how much power he had over his citizenry, he would never be able to enforce this law.

We can therefore conclude that power, in the sense that we define it, has nothing to do with the ability to do the logically impossible. As C.S. Lewis said, “nonsense remains nonsense, even when we talk it about God.”


God is all-good and omnipotent. So after examining Mackie’s two additional premises, we arrive at the following conclusion:

God will always eliminate evil, unless it is logically impossible to do so without compromising his aim to maximise goodness in the world.

 God’s ultimate aim for the world, according to traditional theism, is to live in perfect love and harmony with his human creatures, and for his creatures to live in perfect love and harmony with each other – an aim that will be realised in the afterlife. Would it be logically possible to achieve this without the possibility of evil?

For God to fulfil his ultimate aim, freedom of will is required. It is important to understand that free will is not the highest good. In fact, freedom is not an intrinsic good at all. Freedom is the most essential instrumental good to God’s ultimate aim. Without freedom there can be no virtue, love, or intrinsic goodness, and therefore it is impossible for God to achieve his ultimate plan.

However, any genuine freedom includes the freedom to do evil, and therefore, in practice, good cannot exist without evil. Though God hates evil, he loves what is good more. He therefore allows free will, knowing that it will inevitably lead to evil, because he loves the good so much that he thinks it worth it.

Some argue that it would still be possible for an omnipotent God to create human beings in such a way that they would always freely choose the good. As Mackie argued, if there is no logical impossibility in a man freely doing good on one or several occasions, why is it not logically possible for him to freely do good on every occasion? In one set of circumstances, a person may choose to do good, while in another, he may choose to do bad. God is omniscient, and he therefore knows exactly what circumstances will make a person choose good or evil. Why couldn’t he arrange things to be such that everyone would always freely choose to do good?

There are two reasons. Firstly, free will means that will is ultimately down to choice and can at most be partly influenced by outside factors. Secondly, if God intervened so that everyone would always do good, would this be an environment conducive to the development of real virtue? No. In truth, the best opportunities a person has to develop the virtues of love, gratitude and faithfulness are precisely those times when he is tempted to be unloving, ungrateful and unfaithful. No-one can truly say that they have self-control unless they have been tempted to do wrong and yet have done the right thing.

The only conditions ultimately conducive to true perfection – necessary for the afterlife, since there will be no sin – are conditions where evil and suffering are present. Even if God could create conditions in which everyone always did the right thing, it would not cultivate in us the level and depth of goodness required to live in a perfect world in the afterlife. Because of this, he has instead – through allowing evil and suffering – created the only conditions in which he could possibly realise his ultimate aim.

The evidential problem of evil will never be entirely solved, since traditional theism cannot offer a complete explanation for all of the evil in the world. Moreover, this essay has dealt with the intellectual problem of evil, and one cannot (and should not try to) solve an individual’s emotional problem of evil solely or primarily using reason and logic. However, the existence of evil is compatible and consistent with traditional theism, and therefore the problem of evil is not fatal to traditional theism.