Religious responses to the rise of atheism: the problem of evil (AP10)

The problem of evil is perhaps the most challenging problem faced by theists.  Why does God allow evil?  The atheist response that God does not exist and so cannot stop evil provides a compelling argument against theism, but for nearly the whole history of Christianity, theologians have sought to justify why God would allow evil.

The most common way that theists address the problem of evil is with reference to free will.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) used the Genesis creation story of Adam and Eve and the fall, sometimes called the original sin, to argue that evil had come about through Adam and Eve’s free decision to disobey God.  This free decision corrupted God’s creation resulting in the suffering we see around us today.

St. Irenaeus (130-202) argued that evil was a risk worth taking by God.  Evil has to be a necessary possibility of humans having free will, but we need free will to learn how to be truly good.

Let’s focus in a little more depth on these answers.

Firstly, St. Augustine bases his response to the problem of evil on the creation stories and the story of the ‘Fall’ in Genesis 1-3.  He argues that created a good world, a world with no evil and suffering.  However, part of this world was humans having free will.  This therefore opened up the possibility of humans making the wrong decisions as happened when Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s one rule not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  This rebellion corrupted the creation of God and brought suffering into the world.  Evil and suffering are therefore not the fault of God, but the fault of humans who rebel against God’s created goodness.  It is not for God to stop evil as we have brought it on ourselves.

St. Irenaeus’ ideas, later developed by John Hick, are focussed on the instrumental value of evil, that is the role that evil and suffering can play in bringing about a greater good.  Hick’s argument suggests, like St. Augustine, the free will is an essential part of a perfect world.  However, unlike St. Augustine, Hicks argument states that God’s creation is as yet incomplete and the perfecting of humanity cannot be done by God alone.  Humans need to learn to be good suing their own free will.  Otherwise we would be like robots.  In order to develop this way, humans must have free will and this must mean that they are able to do harm.  Free will in a perfect world is meaningless as however hard you tried, you would not be able to cause harm and suffering.  God deliberately therefore created an imperfect world with suffering as a part of it, but God was justified in doing this as this allows us to develop perfection.  This is the ‘greater good’ that means God is justified in allowing evil.

While the problem of evil remains a significant challenge for theists, there are explanations as to why an all-powerful and all-loving God would allow evil.

St. Augustine and St. Irenaeus’ use of free will shows that evil and suffering is chiefly the responsibility of humans and as such, is not God’s fault.

Although many remain unconvinced by these responses, they do show that it is not impossible to believe in God when faced by the problem of evil.