Evil: Still A Problem, Apparently

Our friend Kevin Kim, whose academic specialty is theology and comparative religion (I recommend to you all his excellent book Water From a Skull), has been involved in a lively discussion about theodicy (also known as “the Problem of Evil”) over at Bill Keezer’s place. Bill’s position is that in order to arrive at a workable answer to the problem, something has to give:

In summary, the theodicic question arises from the belief that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omni-benevolent. Once one shows that these are inherently contradictory, one must select one to be less than “omni.” This paper argues that the resolution of the theodicic question is to limit God’s omnipotence.

Kevin, in his initial response, broadly agrees with Bill. They are soon joined, however, by one Roman Dawes, who thinks the circle can in fact be squared, and the fur begins to fly. Read the whole thing here.

There is, of course, another view one can take, rather than selectively to deny God’s omnipotence, omniscience, or omnibenevolence — and it is a view that cuts the theodicic Gordian knot at a single stroke. It is simply to deny the existence of God.

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  1. I’ve not looked at the link, but there’s broad agreement among philosophers who argue this point that no one has proven that the three ‘omnis’ are contradictory since we might be ignorant of a good reason that God could have for allowing evil.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted June 27, 2010 at 4:27 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Rather unsatisfying, though, no?

    But I’ll let Kevin field this one.

    I like my solution best.

    Posted June 27, 2010 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  3. Unsatisfying, perhaps, but the point ought to be made since the charge of contradiction is often made (and indeed once persuaded me many years ago).

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted June 27, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    One would have to make a utilitarian argument of some sort, which is what this fellow Roman does. Anyway, go have a look.

    Posted June 27, 2010 at 4:33 pm | Permalink
  5. Kevin Kim says


    Yes, I’m in complete agreement with Bill on how the logic plays out, assuming the God of classical theism. But Bill is a theist, whereas I am a nontheist (“non” in the nondualistic sense of “nonrational” as opposed to “irrational”*). Metaphysically speaking, I’m probably closer to your stance than to Bill’s: as I wrote in my original theodicy post (which became a chapter of my book — thanks for the plug), theodicy doesn’t actually concern me personally, but I can see why it would be a vexing question for people who believe God possesses certain attributes.


    I’d be curious to know more about the broad agreement you describe. I’ve read around on this question, and have encountered certain justifications for suffering, such as the “hidden harmony” argument (a lovely one to offer the Jews: “Take heart! Your suffering in the Nazi camps was part of a far greater plan!”) and the “ontological necessity” argument, which is roughly where Roman stood (“God had to create this sort of universe”), even though Roman himself seemed to have trouble admitting it during the exchange. But I’ve never sensed that there exists a wide consensus that no contradictions have been established. Many Philosophy of Religion textbooks still contain chapters that explore the problems posed by matching the God of classical theism up with the existence of human evil and human/creaturely suffering. Three books spring to mind as examples. Two are John Hick’s 1990s-era Philosophy of Religion, 4th Edition, and the recently published A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion by Allen Stairs and Christopher Bernard. Both books take seriously the notion that the typical theist’s list of divine attributes produces problems when matched up with human evil and suffering. Going back in time a bit, we have a third book: Rem B. Edwards’s Reason and Religion.

    Sure: there probably are many religious and philosophical thinkers who claim that the widely noted contradictions aren’t contradictions at all, and I’d also grant that none of the above-cited books comes down one way or another on whether God’s attributes do indeed lead to metaphysical aporias. But whether the claims of the “no conclusively established contradictions” crowd withstand closer scrutiny, and whether the claimants represent a truly widespread school of thought, are matters for further research.

    (I’d venture that, for their part, most religious laypeople prefer to dispense with philosophy altogether, dismissing it as mumbo-jumbo that is irrelevant to the basic matter of faith.)

    If I want to find this “broad agreement” for myself, perhaps I need to stop reading the 101-level books…?

    Anyway, I suspect that God’s “good reason” for allowing evil/suffering probably lies somewhere in the domain of the “hidden harmony” argument. Whether God’s good reason is good enough is, I suspect, a matter of debate.


    *We have to keep in mind that the locution “as opposed to” is, at best, an awkward relational marker when referring to the nonrelational, nondiscursive, etc. I get in trouble with people all the time when I drag nondualism out, whether it’s the Hindu “neti neti” (not this, not that) or the East Asian not-two (“不二” in Chinese).

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 1:07 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Anyway, I suspect that God’s “good reason” for allowing evil/suffering probably lies somewhere in the domain of the “hidden harmony” argument. Whether God’s good reason is good enough is, I suspect, a matter of debate.

    Well, if it’s God’s “good reason”, I guess most folks would give it the benefit of the doubt.

    On the other hand: if no God, then no “good reason”, and no tying ourselves up in knots about the “problem of evil”.

    So much cleaner.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    I’ve never put much stock in the theodicic “problem” since I don’t think we can articulate the premises with sufficient clarity to underwrite any sort of rigor in our derivations of the supposed problem. All the “omni- this and thats” express how a few humans (apes who have to resort to approximative methods to deal with infinities and infinitesimals) interpret what, by their own accounts, are very, very nebulous “experiences.”

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  8. Kevin, the point is a narrowly logical one. Some have claimed to find a logical contradiction between God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and ‘omni-benevolence’, on the one hand, and the fact of evil, on the other hand.

    But why is this a contradiction? The contradiction needs to be clearly demonstrated, but such a contradiction cannot be demonstratively shown, for God’s omniscience and our epistemological situation of limited knowledge leave open the possibility that God has a good reason for allowing evil that we simply do not know and perhaps cannot even understand.

    To prove a contradiction, one would need to demonstrate that God can have no good reason, not merely to demonstrate that one can think of no good reason.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  9. Kevin Kim says

    I should add for the record that, although I called Bill K. a theist, I don’t think it would be proper to call him a classical theist. He holds a very interesting and nuanced position that defies easy explanation.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 1:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Oh, I don’t know, Bob; it seems the gist is simple enough. People want to believe in a limitless God, and a God that is subject to the same sort of constraints we miserable mortals are doesn’t quite measure up, really, as an object of worship.

    But an unlimited God who could allow us to suffer so — who could rack a two-year-old girl with the agonies of bone cancer, for example, or shear away millions of His faithful in an earthquake — makes the hosannas ring a little hollow. Something has to give — and to ask us just to say “well, God is mysterious”, and go right on genuflecting, is asking rather a lot.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  11. Kevin Kim says


    I’ve decided to stick on my reply on my own blog, given how long it’s becoming. Thanks for directing me to Rowe (and, by extension, right back to Plantinga, whom I’ve long considered The Enemy!)

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 3:57 pm | Permalink
  12. Kevin Kim says

    “stick on my reply”…

    I’m starting to sound like those spam emails you occasionally examine, Jeff.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  13. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – It’s not simply a matter of god’s being mysterious. It’s a matter of not being able to demonstrate that there actually is a problem, other than our trying to draw inferences from dodgy premises.

    Also, it’s way to easy to turn the “question” on its head… suppose that a world where evil is possible is better than one where it’s impossible. That’s quite plausible, I think, given the connection between the possibility of evil and moral freedom (another conceptual rat’s nest, I grant…). And acknowledge that if evil is a “real” possibility, then it’s probably going to show its face. Now, where’s the theodicic “problem”? Note that I’m not endorsing any of this, just emphasizing how shaky any inferences in this area must be.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Also, it’s way to easy to turn the “question” on its head… suppose that a world where evil is possible is better than one where it’s impossible. That’s quite plausible, I think, given the connection between the possibility of evil and moral freedom (another conceptual rat’s nest, I grant…).

    Well, that’s where we get into the utilitarian arguments that Kevin was jousting with Roman Dawes about.

    But you can leave out free will and moral agency, and still founder on the two-year-old girl dying in agony from bone cancer. It’s hard to square that one with a loving and all-powerful God, without just throwing up one’s hands and calling it all a “mystery”.

    Again: no God, no problem.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 5:16 pm | Permalink
  15. bob koepp says

    Malcolm – I’m not defending theism, just questioning the force of the theodicic problem. Of course, if the notion of deity is borrowed from the believing masses, it’s bound to be confused and contradictory. And yes, that’s reason enough to try to dissuade those people from their infantile beliefs. But it’s not a simple matter to turn it into a serious argument against more philosophically robust notions of deity — and they’re the only one’s worth expending any intellectual effort on.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 6:51 pm | Permalink
  16. Bob K, I think to ascribe a belief in God as being “borrowed from the believing masses” and to characterize it as “their infantile beliefs” is to show an unwarranted arrogance.

    Classical theism, in which, as Kevin so kindly pointed out, I am not a believer, has had some of the finest philosophical minds of the last two millenia pondering it. It can hardly be described as “infantile” unless one wants to dismiss the discussion by denying the existence of an opponent. Theodicy has also had many of the finest minds over the last three centuries discussing and trying to understand it.

    Refusing to accept a premise is perfectly fine. Denigrating those who do accept the premise is not. I generally consider ad hominum attacks as intellectual laziness or cowardice. I do not recall your doing such on Vallicella’s site.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 8:19 pm | Permalink
  17. bob koepp says

    Bill K – I’m sorry if my flippancy caused offense. But I do believe that there is much confusion and contradiction, as well as infantile projection, in ideas about deity that are widely expressed among the “believing masses.” To be sure, there are also believers who entertain more critical ideas about deity. The latter I did not mean to dismiss.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  18. Malcolm says

    Bill! Welcome back. That was a fine post you wrote.

    Posted June 28, 2010 at 10:11 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm, Thank you.

    Bob K., given the sparse nature of the available data, there is indeed much room for projection, both infantile and mature, on the nature of God and on Jesus’ ministry. The extremes run from fundamentalist literalism where every word in the King James Version of the Bible is absolutely and literally true and inerrant, to the militant atheistic evangelism that suggests that Jesus was not even a historical figure but a rehash of stories from two centuries before his birth.

    Much of religion, my own included, is more a reflection on the person and their evaluation of the limited data than on any “true” interpretation of it or correct extrapolation from it. My own belief is that there is no one correct way to view or respond to the available data. It is extremely underdetermined and therefore eventually requires either complete rejection, or a set of arbitrary decisions on how to view it.

    Those of us who chose to believe have to make our peace with the Scriptures as we understand them and the physical world we live in. The range of solutions runs from total rejection of any idea in conflict with religious teachings, or a total acceptance of what is taught from the pulpit, to a constant and profound wrestling with the contradictions that occur. Out of such struggles come decisions as to what will carry more weight in any circumstance, reality or ideality, and the weight may vary with the situation.

    And yes, I have little or no patience with the unthinking sort of religious belief. I consider the literalists objects of pity in an intellectual sense, though I have found many of them to be really nice people in real-world social sense.

    Posted June 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink