The Problem of Evil: A Primer

by Phillip Brown

            One of the most enduring arguments against the existence of a God that fits the Judeo-Christian idea of who God is, is what is most commonly called the problem of evil. In this article I will not go into great detail, or engage in any extensive assessment of the different forms of the argument, nor the counter arguments. What I will do is take a look at one form of the argument and address what I think are a couple of the flaws of this particular version.

The argument.

            The version of the problem of evil argument that I want to address is not recent, but I think that it is a very clear and relatable example of the argument. J.L. Mackie says that the problem of evil is “… a problem only for someone who believes that there is a God who is both omnipotent and wholly good”(200). Mackie, rightly, goes on to make it clear that this is a problem of logic(200). So what does this argument actually say? In very simple terms, the claim is that given that evil exists in the world, if God exists, how can He be wholly good and allow that evil to continue. If He is wholly good, He would not let evil continue. The only rational explanation, then, is that He is incapable of eradicating evil. And if this is true, then God cannot be omnipotent. On the other hand, if God is omnipotent and He can eradicate evil, but chooses not to, then it must be that He is not wholly good. In brief, if evil exists in the world, and it does, for someone to believe in God, they must jettison either the notion that He is wholly good, or the notion that He is omnipotent, or both.

Whose standard is it anyway?

            Giving this break down of the argument, I want to point out two issues. One of which is what I will call a surface issue and the other, which Mackie himself brings up, is more complex and I will address in more detail. The surface issue is that if God is who Christianity says He is, then he would be the ultimate moral authority. And so, on this version of the argument, what it means to be wholly good would necessarily be determined by God. This causes the argument to completely collapse, because God sets the standard. It is like saying that God is violating one of His own laws, by following that self same law. This is not a rational position to hold. For the argument to hold water, one must argue using a moral standard that is simply their own personal moral code. And that is problematic because it then becomes an opinion. It is subjective in nature and there may be absolutely no good reason to subscribe to it. And this is exactly what Mackie seems to be doing. He makes it very clear that belief in God is not rational to begin with(200). He is arguing from a philosophical position, which asserts that God is not the standard to begin with because He likely does not exist. And this actually adds then to the circularity of his entire position because, in a way, he presuppositionally holds that God can’t be anything at all, let alone wholly good, or omnipotent, due to non-existence.

Free will and evil.

            The second issue is much more complex because it deals with the broader issues of free will. Now there is not enough room in this article, nor is it likely possible to address the issue of free will in its entirety, but the basic idea, from a Christian perspective at least, is that God gave us free will to behave as we see fit because He does not want to force us to love Him, but asks our love for him to, ultimately, be voluntary. The result is that people make decisions that make them happy, even if one of those decisions is to turn away from God. Mackie admits that the argument for free will is “… the most important proposed solution of the problem of evil …”(208). And I believe that he is correct. Mackie correctly sums up the argument by saying that it must be better, in the big picture sense, to have free will than it would be to have essentially mindless controlled beings and that, what he calls second order evils, like cruelty are necessary for free will to exist(208).

            Mackie does however have a number of problems with this view of free will, one of which is that the theist’s definition of free will is kind of like special pleading. Essentially, he thinks that it is an unacceptable and unusual definition. It is worth quoting Mackie in full here, so as not to mischaracterize his position. He says,

            “If it is replied that this objection is absurd, that the making of some wrong choices is logically necessary for freedom, it would seem that ‘freedom’ must here mean complete  randomness or indeterminacy, including randomness with regard to the alternatives good   and evil, in other words that men’s choices and consequent actions can be “free” only if   they are not determined by their characters”(209).

         He goes on to say that God can only absolve Himself of the existence of evil if we follow this definition of free will(209). I submit that Mackie mischaracterizes the theist’s idea of free will. There is no logical necessity for free will to mean randomness in any conventional sense of the word. God can still be wholly good and omnipotent and choose to create people with the ability to choose good, or evil. After all, one might argue that, on the Judeo-Christian view, it is on the basis of our character, at least in part, that we are ultimately judged. That then would necessitate free will stemming from our character. And this in no way is random. I suggest that it simply means determined by the self. And that, I think, is what most people understand to be the definition of free will. There is agency behind a person’s behaviour, which means that randomness does not play a role in the proverbial equation. It is worth noting that the opposite of free will is determinism. That view requires that the self is not what ultimately determines our actions. But that raises a different metaphysical question altogether. In any case, an all-powerful God in no way necessarily has to choose to make people who are morally perfect. And there is no reason to think that He is not wholly good because he chose not to make people who are morally perfect. Further to that, as Mackie also points out that to justify those second order evils one would have to hold that God sees free will as a good that is of greater value than the prevention of second order evils(209). I think that he is correct. And that there is nothing logically inconsistent with God holding that view. Just as is the case with the Euthiphro dilemma, there is a third alternative; God can be the very definition of good. And in being so, He is wholly good. He chose to make morally imperfect beings, so that we would not be oppressed by Him. And by our own free will, we could choose to love Him and each other and follow His  moral standard.

            As was made clear at the beginning of this article, this was not meant to be an exhaustive evaluation of the problem of evil, nor of the many responses to it. I do, however, hope that it does provide some insight into what the problem is all about and how one may go about responding to it.


Evil and Omnipotence

            Author(s): J. L. Mackie

            Source: Mind, Vol. 64, No. 254 (Apr., 1955), pp. 200-212

            Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the Mind

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            Accessed: 02-09-2019 16:15 UTC