In the philosophy of religion and theology, the problem of evil is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God or Gods. An answer to the problem of evil is called a theodicy....
Epicurus is generally credited with first expounding the problem of evil, and it is sometimes called the Epicurean paradox (or the riddle of Epicurus). In this form, the argument is not really a paradox or a riddle, but rather a reductio ad absurdum of the premises. Epicurus drew the conclusion that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of the Gods. More generally, no paradox or problem exists for those who do not accept the premises, in particular the existence of a benevolent god or Gods.
- "Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. ... If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. ... If, as they say, God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" (Epicurus, as quoted in 2000 Years of Disbelief)
Epicurus himself did not leave any written form of this argument. It can be found in Lucretius's "De Rerum Natura" and in Christian theologian Lactantius's "Treatise of the Anger of God" where Lactantius critiques the argument....
Many terms and concepts must be decided upon before the problem of evil may be sufficiently analyzed. This is due to the nature of religious belief.
- Who or what is God?
- For example, the problem of evil changes radically depending on whether God is a personal God, as in most forms of Christianity, distant Gods, as was the case in ancient Egyptian religions, as well as whether there is only one (monotheism) or many Gods (polytheism). (See also demiurge)
- What is evil?
- What is the nature of omnipotence?
- A frequent error is the notion that an omnipotent God would be able to make an agent morally free yet incapable of doing evil to others. This is an error because no amount of power can allow one to make a logical contradiction true. (See the Omnipotence Paradox)
- What is the nature of omnibenevolence?
- To what extent would God desire to spare people from evil? It is, perhaps, too hasty to assume that not experiencing any evil or harm is in the best interest of the universe....
The fifth century theologian Augustine of Hippo mounted what has become one of the most popular defences of the existence of God against the Epicurean paradox. He maintained that evil was only privatio boni, or a privation of good. An evil thing can only be referred to as a negative form of a good thing, such as discord, injustice, and loss of life or liberty. If a being is not totally pure, evil will fill in any gaps in that being's purity. This is commonly called the Contrast Theodicy — that evil only exists as a "contrast" with good. However, the Contrast Theodicy relies on a metaphysical view of morality which few people, even theologians, agree with (that good and evil are not moral judgments). In On Free Choice of the Will, Augustine also argued that Epicurus had ignored the potential benefits of suffering in the world. However, it is pointed out that an omnipotent God could give the world any benefits derived from suffering without those in the world having to suffer....
Some theists argue that God allows evil to exist so that humans can have freedom of choice, to do good or evil, so that they are whole beings, and not mindless machines.
Some critics of this argument say that beings which are not omnipotent do not have freedom of choice in any case. But others say that free will should be understood as "wanting" and "trying" but not necessarily "getting". For example, not everyone has the ability to become a successful Major League Baseball player, even though they have the freedom to try.
Another argument is that the choices a person can make are determined by one's inherent nature. If someone were naturally good, he would still have some degree of free choice. Many people who have enjoyed this partial free will have lived their lives without causing suffering or other evil. Why wouldn't God make everyone predisposed to being good? Why would he make some who are predisposed to performing evil acts?
The other side of this argument is that there "are no" naturally good people. All people are capable of both good and evil acts. An individual does either good or evil acts, depending not only on their inherent nature, but also upbringing, experiences, morals, choices, circumstances, society, and many other factors. The same group of people might be good or evil depending on the society they live in.
Additionally, some critics note that if a god simply cannot create people that are both entirely good and enjoy free will, then it cannot be considered all-powerful....
A unique response to the problem of evil comes from the ill-defined body of early Christian belief known as Gnosticism. Many Gnostics claimed that the god of the Jewish Bible or Old Testament who created the world, is not God, but an inept, though highly powerful, being that they call the Demiurge. They view him as a malicious being who made the world of matter and flesh as a prison to hide humanity's true spiritual nature. Hence, part of their answer to the problem of evil is that the true God, whom they sometimes call "the True Father," did not in fact make this world of suffering, evil and pain. However they do not provide an explanation for why the true God would allow another being to create them instead, and in such an evil manner.