Theodicies and the Problem of Evil

I (Sandra LaFave) actually did not write most of this page. I added the sections on Process Theodicy and Monism, but most is from "The Problem of Evil" by Jim Riley.

(A word of explanation: When I first found this material in 2006, it appeared as part of a series of pages (tutor2u) designed to prepare British students for exams. No author was listed, so I explained that to my students, and cited the URL of the page. Years passed, I retired, and only got back to my websites in 2015. By that time, the old URL no longer worked, but I found Riley's article again, this time with identifying information. I added his name and the new URL as soon as I became aware of the information.)


John Hick defined evil as “physical pain, mental suffering and moral wickedness.” For Hick, the consequence of evil is suffering

"Natural evil" means the apparent malfunctioning of the natural world e.g. diseases and natural disasters.

"Moral evil" means the result of human immorality e.g. genocide.



The monotheistic God of Christianity, Judaism and Islam supposedly possesses divine qualities of omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. However, the existence of evil and suffering in the world challenges this idea.

Augustine, in ‘Confessions,’ states the problem very clearly: “Either God is not able to abolish evil or not willing; if he is not able then he is not all-powerful; if he is not willing then he is not all-good.”

The problem of evil can be viewed as an inconsistent triad, as in J. L. Mackie's article "Evil and Omnipotence."

  1. God is totally good.

  2. God is omnipotent.

  3. Evil exists.

According to Mackie, the three claims are logically inconsistent. If God is omnipotent, he is aware of the existing evil and suffering and knows how to put a stop to it. If God is omnibenevolent he will want to put a stop to it. Yet evil and suffering do exist. You might want to read my notes on Mackie.

Thus, David Hume argued that either:

  1. God is not omnipotent; or

  2. God is not omnibenevolent; or

  3. Evil does not exist.

According to Mackie, each of these possibilities solves the problem of evil, but none are orthodox. Since we have sufficient direct experience to support the existence of evil, if God exists he is either an impotent God or a malicious God — not the God of classical theism. Hume and Mackie conclude that God therefore does not exist.

Antony Flew wrote that believers need to acknowledge that the existence of evil and suffering has no consistent solution. All the supposedly orthodox "solutions" to the problem of evil qualify the notion of God, i.e., believers arbitrarily change the nature of God to suit different circumstances. The challenge is to solve the problem of evil without taking back any of God's supposed divine attributes. See separate notes on Flew.

Thomas Aquinas' theodicy exemplifies this "qualifying" approach. Aquinas argued that God’s goodness is infinitely different from human goodness (although he does maintain that both have points of correspondence). Therefore, it is conceivable that God allows evil and suffering to exist as a part of his greater plan of love. So God's "goodness" and God's "love" are so different from our notions of goodness and love (our notions of goodness and love are so qualified when we discuss God's goodness and love) that these notions become completely unintelligible and meaningless to us: God's "goodness" includes starving innocent children to death, for example.

Theodicies are attempts to justify the existence of evil and suffering, and they usually claim that evil and suffering are a necessary condition for the achievement of God’s greater plan.



Based on the narratives of Genesis 1-3, Augustine’s theodicy argues that God created the world and it was perfect, without any evil or suffering. Genesis 1:31: “God saw all that he had made and saw that it was very good”

Augustine defined evil as the privation of goodness, just as blindness is a privation of sight. Since evil is not an entity in itself, just like blindness is not an entity in itself, God could not have created it.

Instead, evil originates from free will possessed by angels and humans, who turned their back on God and settled for a lesser form of goodness thus creating a privation of goodness, as the narrative of ‘the fall’ in Genesis 3 tries to explain. As a result the state of perfection was ruined by sin.

Natural Evil:   Occurred because of the loss of order in nature, defined by Augustine as the ‘penal consequences of sin’

Moral Evil:     Derived from human free will and disobedience

Augustine reasoned that all humans are worthy of the punishment of evil and suffering because we are “seminally present in the loins of Adam”, deserving of the punishment for original sin.

God has the right not to intervene and put a stop to evil and suffering, since he is a just God and we are worthy of punishment. It is by his grace and infinite love however, that we (some of us, those to whom he chooses to give grace) are able to accept his offer of salvation and eternal life in heaven.


  • One of the principal critics of the Augustinian Theodicy is F.D.E Schleiermacher. He argued that it was logically contradictory to claim that a perfectly created world went wrong, since this implies that evil created itself ex nihilo, which is a logical contradiction. Either the world was not perfect to start with or God made it go wrong; so it is God and not humans who are to blame, and the existence of evil is not justified.
  • If the world was perfect and there was no knowledge of good and evil, how could Adam and Eve have the freedom to disobey God if goodness and evil were as yet unknown? The disobedience of Adam and Eve and the angels implies that there already was knowledge of good and evil. Augustine’s interpretation of the tree of knowledge therefore is questionable.
  • Augustine’s view is also inconsistent with the theory of evolution which asserts that the universe began in chaos and is continually developing, not diminishing over time.
  • Augustine’s view that every human in seminally present in the loins of Adam is biologically inaccurate. Also, it raises the question: is God really justified in allowing punishment of one human being for the sin of another human being?



Like Augustine, Irenaeus argued that evil is the consequence of human free will and disobedience. However, unlike Augustine,Irenaeus believed that God was partly responsible for evil and suffering. Irenaeus argued that God created the world imperfectly so that every imperfect immature being could develop through a soul-making process into a ‘child of God,’ in God's perfect likeness.

For Irenaeus, God could not have created humans in perfect likeness of himself because attaining the likeness of God requires the willing co-operation of humans. God thus had to give humans free will in order for them to be able to willingly co-operate. Since freedom requires the ability to choose good over evil (a controversial claim; see below), God had to permit evil and suffering to occur.

Natural Evil:   Has the divine purpose to develop qualities such as compassion through the soul-making process

Moral Evil:     Derived from human free will and disobedience

Irenaeus concluded that eventually evil and suffering will be overcome and humans will develop into a perfect likeness of God, and everyone will have eternal life in heaven.



John Hick highlighted the importance of God allowing humans to develop themselves. He reasoned that if God made us perfect, then we would have the goodness of robots, which would love God automatically without any further deliberation. God wants humans to be genuinely loving and therefore gives them free will.

If God interfered or became too close, humans would be unable to make a free choice and thus would not benefit from the developmental process. This is known as the counterfactual hypothesis. Therefore God created humans at an epistemic distance from himself, a distance of knowledge.


  • The idea that everyone goes to heaven is not just, and it is inconsistent with Orthodox Christianity and ‘The Fall’ of Genesis 3. It also demotes Jesus’ role from ‘saviour’ to ‘moral role model’
  • Is the magnitude of suffering really necessary for soul making? e.g. the Holocaust.
  • D.Z. Phillips in ‘The Concept of Prayer’ argued that the continuation of evil and suffering is not a demonstration of love from an omnibenevolent God
  • If life suddenly ceased to exist God would not have achieved his purpose.

  • Does the wonderful future down the line really justify the seemingly overwhelming current amount of suffering and evil on earth (see the Dostoevsky reading for a graphic account of what looks like excessive suffering endured by innocent children)? Couldn't God have set things up so that the wonderful future doesn't require quite as much extreme suffering??

  • Some ‘evil people’ cannot be held responsible for their evil actions; for example mentally retarded people.



Both the Augustinian and Irenaen theodicies assume free will, i.e., the notion that moral evil stems from moral agents, and free agency is a necessary condition for human development. According to the free will defense, the goodness of free agency outweighs the evil derived from free moral agents.

Supporters of the free-will defense argue that divine intervention would compromise human freedom, thus preventing human development.

Swinburne used the example of death. Death brings about suffering but is necessary to ensure humans take their responsibilities seriously. Swinburne wrote: ‘If there is always a second chance there is no risk.’


  1. Is the magnitude of suffering really necessary for human development (see Madden and Hare)? Hick argued that either the world is free of evil and suffering and there would be no free-will OR we accept the world as it is now. But this seems an either-or fallacy. If we say that some evils are too great then we begin to go down a scale of evils until even the slightest evil becomes too great e.g. if we say cancer is too severe, what about heart disease, flu or even a headache? But this suggests that if God eliminated some evils, he wouldn’t know where to draw the line and would be forced to eliminate them all. But this seems a slippery slope! And surely God would know where to draw the line, if God is omniscient. See Madden and Hare.

  2. Some argue that God could have created free agents without risking bringing evil and suffering into the world - there is nothing logically inconsistent about a free agent that always chooses goodness over evil. However, Hick argued that is such a case humans would not be truly free since their actions would have been decided before they came into existence, even if they were under the illusion that they were acting freely. (I.e., Hick assumes a libertarian position on free will.) The libertarian position seems impossible to reconcile with God’s supposed omniscience (complete knowledge of past and future). Many philosophers (including Augustine) suppose a soft determinist position on freedom, which assumes an omniscient God who created an orderly predictable universe.

  3. TRY THIS THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Suppose you had the chance to prevent a murder from happening, but you chose to let the murder happen anyway. You could not use the free-will defence to justify your inaction, could you? It would certainly be unacceptable for you, a human being, to argue that you were right not to prevent the murder, even if you were able to, simply because you wanted to preserve the free-will of the murderer. So why should this justification be more acceptable coming from God?



Process theodicy is a modern theodicy that stems from the line of thinking of A.N. Whitehead, developed by David Griffin

Process theologians argue that God is not omnipotent and he did not create the universe; instead, the universe is uncreated and he is a part of it. This is contrary to the all-powerful and transcendent God of Abrahamic religions. According to process theology, God is responsible for starting the evolutionary process which eventually led to the development of humans, and is thus partly responsible for the existence of evil and suffering.

God does not have control over humans and they are free to ignore him, but he does do everything in his power to ensure the universe produces enough goodness to outweigh evil, although he is restricted by the laws of nature. Moreover, he suffers with humans when evil occurs.


  • Is it really a theodicy at all? It uses qualification rather than theodicy to orchestrate a solution to the problem; i.e., it radically revises the original conception of God.
  • Is the God of process theology really worthy of worship? And if he cannot guarantee victory over evil, what is the point in human efforts?


Monism is not a theodicy but a challenge to the existence of evil. Monists argue that the universe is perfect and good and the concept of evil is an illusion that evokes the feeling of suffering.

Spinoza argued that we assess things wrongly. We make judgments from our anthropocentric perspective only. We ask only how useful things are to us, and miss their true value independently of us. Spinoza reasoned that if we look at everything objectively, we would see that everything has a unique value and there is no good and evil.

Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science Movement, argued that evil and suffering are in the mind. She claimed that if sufferers would only realize there is not reality to their pain, then their pain would instantly stop.


  • Monism is not very widely accepted and is counter-intuitive. I.e., it just seems false to claim that because pain is "mental", it can be stopped by an effort of the will. The view assumes substance dualism, a view that most philosophers reject.
  • Why would a benevolent God allow the illusion of evil when it causes a feeling of suffering?
  • The theory trivializes evil and suffering: if evil is an illusion, on what basis is morality important? Why should I feel the moral obligation to avoid evil actions and pursue good ones? Why should I ease the (imaginary) sufferings of others?

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