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The Problem of Evil

This title is often given to the debate between theists and atheists that would be better titled, “Does God Exist?”  The God figure debated is that of the Mosaic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islamism.  The reason for the title “The Problem of Evil” is that most often the debate boils down to that single question.  How could the Mosaic God, who is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good), exist at the same time as evil does?  The problem is really with concepts and ideas. 

Four premises create what appears to some to be a conflict. God is all-powerful.  God is all-knowing. God is all-good.  Evil exists.  The question is whether all four of these statements can be true at the same time.  If any one of the four premises is eliminated, the problem no longer exists.  An all knowing and all good, but not so powerful God might co-exist with evil if God were not powerful enough to overcome evil.  An all-powerful and all-good God might co-exist with evil if God were not all-knowing and didn’t realize evil was happening.  An all-powerful and all-knowing, but not so good God might also co-exist with evil.  Finally, if the concept of evil were changed or eliminated, there would be no question of or conflict with an all-powerful, all-knowing and all good God. 

The debate on the co-existence of God and evil is relevant only to the God of the Mosaic traditions.  The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses did not possess the infinitely good, wise and powerful qualities of the Mosaic God.  These gods and goddesses possessed more human qualities and there was no conflict between the co-existence of evil and these human characteristics.  Many of these gods and goddesses were themselves both good and evil. 

In the time of Socrates (circa 470 BC – 399 BC), critical thinkers found the many stories of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses to be both inconsistent and incoherent.  Socrates himself believed that the moral and social order needed a better grounding than these figures could provide.

 Plato (circa 428  – 348/347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC) also found the concepts of these deities unreasonable.  These great philosophers predate Christianity and Islamism, but the Mosaic/Judaic God was well within their ability to grasp and they found this concept a more satisfying explanation of origins and order.  Christians and Moslems share this understanding of the Mosaic/Judaic God. 

What I propose here is to review the debate for you over a series of six articles from both the theistic and atheistic perspectives beginning here with a presentation on evil so as to establish the existence of evil among the four premises that make up the debate.  While I personally know of no one who denies the existence of evil in the world, I do not want to leave this step unattended. 

The debate lays out four types of evil: Physical and Metaphysical, Natural and Moral.  Physical evil refers to such things as bodily pain or mental anguish and would include illness, injury, fear, and grief among other things.  Metaphysical evil describes things like injustice, deformities, criminals who go unpunished as well as the gap between those who have much and those who have little. Natural evils would be things like famines, floods, hurricanes, landslides and other natural disasters.  Examples of moral evil would be willful acts of humans against the laws of human nature such as rape or murder. 

Noted atheist, Professor Kai Nielsen, PhD. is quick to point out when he debates that the standard view on this subject of the problem of evil is that you cannot prove that God does exist and you cannot prove that God does not exist.

“Indeed,” he says, “Some will say you can’t even successfully argue that it is more probable that He does exist or more probable that God doesn’t exist.”  Dr. Neilsen rejects that standard view and believes that proofs can be made.  So do the theists with whom he spars. 

To win the debate, it becomes the challenge of the atheists to show that the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God is inconsistent or incompatible with the existence of these forms of evil.  The theists, for their part, must show that the coexistence of God and evil is coherent.  Since the debate is ongoing, I would suggest to you that neither side is yet satisfied with the arguments or proofs of the other, but I will present both to you for your own consideration.  One caution I offer from the onset is to be aware of the philosophical biases and assumptions made in the arguments.  A simple example would be the argument that if there existed a being that was omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then there would be no natural evil.  There is natural evil; therefore there is no God. 

The initial premise that if there existed a being that were omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, then there would be no natural evil is a biased assumption and not a proven fact.  So this does not constitute a valid argument.  Both theists and atheists have strong biases and both sides make assumptions that they might hope will go unnoticed by their opponents.  Be very aware of these and of your own biases and assumptions as well. 

Some questions for you to consider before the next article would be:

  1. Is it possible for there to be an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity and for evil to exist at the same time?
  2. Can any apparent inconsistency be resolved in any manner that preserves all three primary characteristics of this deity? 
  3. Is it necessary to compromise the idea of the Mosaic God in order to explain its coexistence with evil?
  4. Is it necessary to compromise the concept of evil in order to explain the coexistence with the Mosaic God?
  5.  Does the existence of evil and proof of its inconsistency with the Mosaic God lead to the conclusion there is no deity at all or just no omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God? 

What do you think? 

Check back next week for the next installment of the series, titled,Does God Exist?  No.  Some atheistic contributions to the debate.”

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