The problem of suffering and pain in a world that the theist claims has been created by an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing God has long been a flashpoint in the debate surrounding God’s nature and existence. The argument about the mere presence of evil pushes the limits of human history (i.e. Job), but the escalated horrors of the 20th century, specifically the Holocaust, have brought the debate about the magnitude of the problem to the forefront now more than ever.
Interestingly, the problem of pain was not a serious threat to Christian thought until the last several centuries; suffering has only recently been seen as a ground for final skepticism rather than an incentive for inquiry. When Descartes and other theologians began to discuss the existence of God by stressing philosophy and reason rather than the person of Christ, they opened the door to a new room of argument.
The problem of evil – specifically, the claim that the existence of evil necessitates or at least argues strongly for the non-existence of God – has been formulated on two different levels. The most foundational question is if the existence of God and the existence of evil are compatible. A different approach grants that God and evil may exist, but questions what kind of God would allow the apparently gratuitous pain we see in the world.
Though there is some variation in the formulation, the Logical Problem of Evil (LPE) can be stated as follows:
God exists, and is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
This is logically inconsistent with the idea that evil exists, because a perfectly good being would want to eliminate evil, and an all powerful being would eliminate evil.
Evil exists; therefore, God does not exist.
In this scenario, damage is done not only to the concept of God, but to the character of God as well. David Hume (who was more interested in the challenge to the moral nature of God than to His existence) cites Epicurus’ famous questions: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Alvin Plantinga has been a driving force in pointing out a key weakness: the presence of evil would prove that God doesn’t exist only if we add the premise that God does not have a reason for allowing evil to exist. It does not necessarily follow that a perfectly good being would prevent suffering if he could.
Granted, this is not as much a positive argument for the compatibility of evil and God as a negative argument stating there is at least not an incompatibility with the two. However, other philosophers such as Stephen Davis have joined Plantinga in building on a traditions classically formulated by Augustine – the Free Will Defense.
The Free Will defender argues that it was good for God to create people who had genuine choices, and whose choices were not coerced. Humans were created to be able to make ethical choices in a morally significant way, and this ability makes this world more valuable than a world that does not contain free action. Therefore, the existence of distortions of good we label “evil” springs from the misuse of the good of Free Will. (Note that this does not claim to have completely solved the problem of whether a choice to do evil has to be one of the choices; it merely notes that the ideas of God and evil are not incompatible.) As a result of the work of Plantinga and others, many current philosophers no longer see the Logical Problem of Evil as strong evidence against the theistic God.
However, the sheer scope of the pain and suffering on earth is also daunting to the theistic task. In this Evidential Problem of Evil (or EPE), the issue is no longer whether or not the existence of pain and the existence of God are compatible; in a sense, their possible coexistence is granted at least for the sake of argument. The issue now has become whether or not the amount of seemingly senseless, gratuitous, and non-beneficial pain is compatible with the existence of a God whose characteristics match those of the God who survived the Logical Problem of Evil.