Evil and Suffering

There are two types:

  • Moral = man made
  • Natural = catastrophes caused by so-called natural causes

The fact of evil and suffering’s existence is the main argument in the non-believer’s arsenal because it seems to completely rule out the existence of a loving God if these exist.

The God of classical theism has three specific attributes:

  • Omnibenevolent
  • Omniscient
  • Omnipotent

Hume concluded that God either is not omnipotent or benevolent or evil does not exist. This is a paradox.

The conclusion is that the existence of evil is therefore somehow deliberate.

Aquinas accepted the logical impossibility that proof against god’s goodness would be proof of his non-existence:

There is evil in the world; therefore God does not exist…but Aquinas as a theist could not actually accept the reality of this. He said that this argument could only work if we accept its two premises:

    *part of the definition of the God is the concept of his infinite goodness

    *God’s goodness is the same as human goodness

We accept the first but the second cannot be true because our goodness is so limited, God’s much be much greater and orders of magnitude different therefore this allows for God to allow the existence of evil for reasons we cannot understand.

Theodicies were put forward to explain what God’s reasons might be.

Theodicy comes from the Greek:

  • Theos – of God
  • Dike – the justification


Augustine’s theodicy (AD 354-430)

This theodicy rests on two major assumptions:

  • Evil did not come from God since God’s creation was faultless and perfect
  • Evil came from elsewhere – therefore God is justified in allowing it to stay

He believed:

In creation God saw that it was Good

Evil is not a thing – it is a lack of good

If God did not create it, it must have come from those beings with free-will who abused it and turned away from God

Therefore all suffering is a fully deserved consequence of human sin. Natural evil originated from the loss of order within nature following the first sin and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This destroyed the delicate balance of the world. In this damaged environment, remote from God, moral evil flourished.

Both types of evil are a punishment, therefore.

From Augustine we get the Church’s doctrine of original sin because he believed all humans even ‘innocent’ babes, deserved to suffer since we are all descended from Adam and Eve who took part in the original sin of disobedience of God.


However, because God is just, everyone does not go to their rightful punishment – Hell; through His grace and mercy and Christ’s sacrifice we can be saved and go to heaven.



There are several logical flaws in this argument:

  • Evil cannot logically have come from nowhere/ out of nothing – therefore it must somehow be attributed to God. Either the world was not perfect or God enabled or allowed it to go wrong.
  • The free-will argument is illogical because in a perfect world there would be no knowledge of good and evil therefore no freedom to obey or disobey i.e. no choice. Thus the fact that God’s creatures chose to disobey, suggests a knowledge of evil already, which could only have come from God.
  • The scientific problem is that the perfect world damaged by human contradicts evolutionary theory. Evolution is the survival of the fittest and the fittest survive by selfishness!
  • Then again it also goes against known geology, which we know means that the world was formed by volcanic activity, flood and similar apparently catastrophes so in the limited time humans have been alive we cannot have caused those imperfections in the natural world.
  • And then the idea that each human was seminally present in Adam has to be rejected on purely biological and genetic grounds. (It has for many years now been accepted that we cannot all have descended from just two people; the gene pool would be just too small – however much more recently some scientists believe we may well all be descended from no more than a handful of individuals; so maybe Augustine was on the right lines after all!)
  • The moral problem here is that a loving God would not create such a place as hell – a place of eternal suffering but:
  • If He did create it then He must have anticipated things going wrong!
  • And if He could think of things going wrong the concept of good and evil must have been passed from Him to his creatures.


Irenaeus’ theodicy

God’s aim was perfection but

Genuine human perfection cannot be created ready-made – it must develop through free-choice

Therefore we must have the potential to disobey

If there is no possibility of evil then there is no free choice

Therefore humans had to be imperfect, God had to stand back and allow man to make his bed!

Sadly humans used their freedom to cause suffering but

God cannot now intervene


[19/1/04] All will become right in Heaven therefore evil and suffering are justified.


According to Irenaeus God had to be partly responsible for evil; ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26), only later would man become completely like God.

Evil can help us understand what good is.

‘How if we had no knowledge to the contrary could we have instruction in that which is good.’ Irenaeus.


John Hick – prefers the idea of goodness through free-will – not robotic perfection.

(see the analogy of the driver and the police chief or the student and headmaster)

If God wanted humans to be genuinely loving he had to give them the opportunity to develop this quality for themselves.

If we had been created to automatically love God we would not be autonomous.


Peter Vardy used the analogy of the king who falls in love with a peasant girl – he could force her to marry him but he prefers to woo her – only this way can he guarantee the genuineness of any decision she makes.


If human perfection had to develop three things were needed to facilitate this:

  • Humans had to be created imperfect
  • Humans had to be distanced from God
  • The world could not be perfect.


If the world were a paradise where no harm could happen then whatever our actions only good would happen therefore we would not be free. Evil would be indistinguishable from good. Also there would be no qualities like honour, courage, loyalty and selflessness. The world must contain natural laws that can produce some suffering in order for these qualities to develop.


John Hick: said our world may be ‘rather well adapted to the … purpose of soul-making.’


Why did Irenaeus believe Heaven must be everyone’s goal?

  • Suffering not always purposeful in life so if life just ended it would be pointless
  • Only a better future in Heaven can justify the magnitude of the suffering
  • Many ‘evil’ people are also victims and not responsible for their actions so no one can be overlooked.



On the plus side it does allow for evolution and removes the problem of appearance of evil from nowhere but:

  • Heaven for all? Seems unjust – Hitler?
  • The amount of suffering is unacceptable – 6 million Jews etc
  • Can suffering ever be an expression of God’s love?

It therefore makes moral behaviour pointless – there is no incentive.

No-one who loves would allow the beloved to suffer if they could prevent it – but what about the parental relationship?


The Free-Will Defence

Both the theodicies argue that suffering is a consequence of free will. This has led to a theodicy in its own right in recent times.

The world as it is a logically necessary environment in that it provides true freedom in the form of real choices which provide goodness or harm and only in such an environment can we ever be free and human.



With reference to the Holocaust criticism, he argues that God must allow even the largest scale horrors to allow us to be free to develop. He cannot step in even then or he compromises our freedom and removes human responsibility.


His analogy was of a god who as a parent allows an older child more freedom in order to grow up.


Using death as an example, because he maintains that death is not actually an evil, he explains that death is necessary because then it limits lifes’s chances because only in a limited lifespan can we have genuine responsibility for our actions.


A situation of temptation with infinite chances is no situation of temptation at all.’ [think of the film Groundhog Day where the protagonist aware that he is reliving the same day time after eventually tries different ways of killing himself knowing that he will be back the next day] If we were immortal there would always be another chance to make amends.


Critique of the Free Will defence

Mainly how can divine love be expressed through suffering?


JL Mackie felt that God could have made beings who were both free and who would always choose right. Because he didn’t he cannot be both omnipotent and wholly good.


In other words his gift of free will is not an excuse for the existence of evil – He could have made free beings who would choose never to sin!


John Hick’s reply is that these humans would be no better than robots, no more satisfying to God because their actions would already have been concluded when they were made.


And what about free-will and determinism?


If God knows what we will do in advance doesn’t this suggest he has already decided that evil will exist?

But if not did evil then take Him by surprise? If so He is not omnipotent!



These arguments all try to justify the existence of the God of classical theism in the face of evil.

Against Hume they argue that God can still be omnipotent and omnibenevolent and yet evil can still exist.


Process Theology


A distinctive world view developed by A N Whitehead (1861-1947) that God is intimately involved in the processes of the world and maintains an active relationship with it. God needs the world as the world needs God. Like the relationship between the person and their body.

God is subject to change too. God makes the world develop through evolution – there are failures and setbacks as well as successes. The failures are the inevitable results of the evolution of the world as it moves from its ‘alpha point to its omega point.’ (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

The aim of Process theology is to see God as not merely Nature but the driving force behind it – intimately concerned with its day to day running as well as its ultimate destiny.


The main tenet or assumption

God is not omnipotent!


He did not create the universe


The universe is an ‘uncreated process which includes the deity’


God is part of the world and bound by natural laws


Humans have developed and exerted their influence over the world


God is no longer in total control


Humans are free to ignore God


We are not fashioned in His likeness


‘It is necessarily the case that God cannot completely control the creatures’


God suffers when evil is committed because He is part of the world and is affected by it yet is unable to control it.


God is not powerful enough to stop evil but must bear some responsibility for having started the process of evolution off knowing that He would be unable to control it.

Why did God take such a risk? Given a choice between the universe we live in and no universe at all, surely the former is preferable?


Critique of the Process Theodicy


  • It does remove the problem of why if He is all-loving and all powerful He does not remove suffering – He cannot!
  • For believers God suffering may be encouraging
  • There is no guarantee that God will triumph so believers may join the fight against evil – against inertia!



  • It is not really a theodicy because it does not justify God’s existence in the face of evil.
  • Denies he is the God of classical theism because He is not omnipotent!
  • Is He worthy of worship then?
  • If the future is uncertain then it may encourage despair.
  • Evolution being justified on the grounds that good has outweighed evil may not convince those who have suffered. I.e. the ends don’t justify the means.


The problem of the existence of evil is a major argument against the existence of God.

Some responses have readjusted the nature of God, some the nature of evil and others have attempted to harmonise evil with the existence of the God of classical theism.

In the end it comes down to each person’s standpoint anyway: if they are already a non-believer it may be the final nail in the coffin, but if they are a believer they may well resort to the ‘eternal cop-out clause’ – we being human cannot understand the ways of the divine and that God musts have had some (to us) unfathomable purpose for the existence of evil.


Suffering and God’s mercy

There is a case for arguing that God does limit suffering:

  1. All suffering ends with death
  2. Human comfort can be given in suffering
  3. It can be an inspiration to faith
  4. Its value in soul making
  5. It can be an alternative to despair


The Brothers Karamazov is a story by Dostoyevsky in which there are two brothers one of whom, Ivan, refuses to believe in a God who allows innocent children to suffer – no such suffering to him can ever be justified even on the grounds that they will be compensated in Heaven.


James Sure: ‘Christians and others who believe in a transcendent, personal God are faced with the problem of evil… If God is both good and omnipotent why is there so much evil…If God exists, God is either not completely good or not completely powerful.’

The existence of evil suggests that God has chosen to allow it.


Samuel Putnam: ‘God must be all good or not good at all.


Swinburne: ‘There is a problem about why God allows evil and if a theist does not have a satisfactory answer then his belief in God is less than rational.’


Since there are many types of evil, how do we define it? What is it?

Examples include rape, murder, torture, oppression, famine, disease and death.


But is it:

  • The absence of good?
  • The opposite of good?
  • Sin or the consequence of sin?
  • The choosing not to be good?
  • Is suffering the consequence?


Moral and natural evil are different, have different causes but often overlap or affect one another e.g. war leads to famine; pollution to global warming to floods or drought…


Mary Baker Eddy of the Christian Scientists believed like the Monists that evil ‘is simply an illusion.’


John Hick said, ‘outside of God’s nature and existing independently of Him, there is material that He did not create and with which He struggles with only partial success.'(Process Theology)


So theodicies demonstrate that god has good reasons for allowing the continued existence of evil and suffering and these outweigh their existence i.e. they provide greater benefits than the benefit of removing evil.


Swinburne said ‘a generous God will seek to give us great responsibility… to make our lives valuable… The problem is that He cannot … without allowing much evil on the way.’


Both Augustinian and Irenaean depend on the principle of free-will:

Either God created man in His likeness from which he fell through abuse of free-will

Or man’s moral development is evolutionary and he has the capacity to grow into the likeness of God through use of free-will.


In the NT St Paul developed his own theodicies:

  • Test of faith
  • Promise of glory to come and the reward in a future life


God and evil


The problem of evil has haunted the history of Israel and the Bible


  • Why? Is answered in the psalms
  • Job
  • The story of Jesus
  • Insurance policies call floods and disasters ‘acts of God’


Atheism states that because evil exists therefore God cannot. Proponents of this view included Iris Murdoch, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw


JS Mill said: ‘not even on the most distorted theory of good which was ever framed by religious or philosophical fanaticism can the government of nature resemble the work of a Being at once good and omnipotent.’


Dualism: can’t blame evil on God – anti-god. The universe is the battlefield on which the principles of Good and Evil fight for domination.

The neighbours of ancient Israel bequeathed much of their imagery to the Bible and the Qur’an – hence the references to the battle between Light and Dark and Good and Evil.


Judaism, Christianity and Islam are monistic not dualistic. The Oneness of God is central despite the problems and references in the Bible to God doing ‘evil’ deeds:

“I form light and darkness, I make weal and woe…” Isaiah 45:7

“Shall we receive good …and not evil too?”(at the hand of God) Job 2:10

“I believe in God… and believe everything both good and bad comes from him…” comes from the Muslim profession of faith.


Evil is unreal St
Augustine‘s view that– not a positive but a negative, an absence therefore God’s hands are clean is no comfort to an actual sufferer.


Original Sin

  • All evil originated in man’s rebellion against God
  • Whole of creation pronounced good 7 times – humans disobeyed and disrupted and introduced disorder.
  • Freewill solution – we had the freedom to choose
  • Rest of Bible after Genesis chapter 3 longs for a future when this original disorder will be eliminated.
  • Naïve – how did the author know? Scientific fact disputes this – floods and earthquakes pre-date man so the freewill solution doesn’t help!


It is a punishment:

  • Sent by God deliberately – this is what the OT and NT say!
  • Job is written to repudiate the link between guilt and suffering. He suffers in spite of his innocence.
  • Jesus urges us to forgive indiscriminately because God does.
  • It is blasphemous to suppose that the starving in the 3rd world would have offended God while we in the prosperous West are in God’s good books.


It is a test:

  • Evil is used to encourage growth; encourages loyalty, self-sacrifice, discipline – and builds character.
  • Irenaeus – our painful world is a ‘vale of soul-making’
  • John Hick – developmental nature of life. Humans not born perfect. Perfection comes at the end not at the beginning. Only thru challenge can virtues like courage and compassion be formed.
  • But a God who would construct an obstacle course to build the muscles of some while others fall by the wayside is a monster!



  • God does not need to apologise – the beauty of the end result is worth it! Good can come out of evil.
  • Worse evil can come out of evil
  • Evil can come out of good
  • Evil for evil’s sake is irresponsible in the face of suffering itself


Package deal:

  • Simply part of the world take it or leave it
  • World of physical laws – slightest adjustment would have produced a totally different world
  • So far as we can see this world where we are vulnerable and prone to accident is the only world where could be for the emergence of beings with a genuine freedom of choice in relation to God and one another.Bishop Richard Harries 1988


A Christian Solution

  • The God of the Bible is an incarnate God – close at hand, present and sharing in His creatures’ condition.
  • His almighty power is not one of compulsion but of self-giving love; as vulnerable as His creatures are He suffers with them.
  • As Job discovered the problem will never be anything other than the cosmic mystery of God
  • But the story of Christ offers a practical approach to the problem
  • St Paul in Romans 8:18-39 paints the picture of the world as creaking and groaning, hardship and persecution, calamity and death. These are not good but they are less strong than the love of God. Through them God continues to work for our good.
  • The supreme example is the death of Christ
  • The cross wasn’t beautiful but if we can see God in the midst of that is there anywhere that He is not?
  • All this means believing God will not magically intervene or interfere; trying to believe in all events of our life, good and evil, that we are loved.
  • Process theologians insist that a God who is in ‘process’ cannot do other than share the suffering of His creatures.
  • The best clue we have to the nature of God, is Jesus suffering and dying for us on the cross.” Peter de Rosa



  • It is easier to deal with pain if we can find an understandable cause other than just a perverse world.
  • We have to deal with it somehow by: stopping /reducing /coping /accepting or preventing it.
  • The Bible suggests That God is not aloof; He is present in our lives suffering with us.
  • Jesus grew angry and grieved at pain and suffering; he empathised.
  • But he dies rather than use aggression to conquer evil.
  • Ivan Karamazov could not rationalise evil and was offended by it, he plunged into despair rejecting God.
  • Job chose faith and love to encounter peace with God
  • BOTH are fictional but nevertheless real responses to the problem.


Selection of questions on evil and suffering

a) For what reasons may suffering create philosophical problems for religious believers? [10]

b) Outline TWO solutions and comment on their success? [10] (from the specimen paper)



a) What do religious believers mean by the problem of suffering? [5]

b) Select any two theodicies and consider how far they offer solutions to this problem. [15]



a) Outline the reasons why some beliefs about God mean that suffering poses particular problems for religious believers. [7]

b) Examine and comment of the success or otherwise of any TWO theodicies. [13]



a) What is meant by the ‘problem of suffering’? [4]

b) Give an account of TWO theodicies and consider the view that they fail to solve the problem of suffering. [16]


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