The Problem of Evil

Christopher Hurtado —  May 4, 2010
The Problem of Evil | Christopher Hurtado


In this paper, I will first define the problem of evil and outline arguments against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent God from the problem of evil. I will then give a definition of a theodicy and outline Hick’s theodicy in defense of God’s omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence. Following, I will present two salient Latter-day Saint (LDS) critiques of Hick’s theodicy. Finally, I will give an LDS theodicy, being a modified Hickean theodicy, based on the doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which will answer the LDS objections to Hick’s theodicy. In laying out an LDS theodicy, I will anticipate and refute with reasons the two most salient Hickean objections to it.


The problem

The problem of evil is defined as the need for reconciliation between our imperfect world and God’s goodness. The problem is twofold. On the one hand, it begs the purely logical question of whether an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God could have created a world in which life is afflicted by pain and evil. This question is often answered by the free will defense, which argues that a tincture of evil allows for the possibility of greater good. On the other hand, it begs the more pressing question of whether one can reasonably presume divine workmanship from such an imperfect world. This was Hume’s argument against design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (“Oxford” 123).

Hume’s argument against design

Hume, as Philo, put it this way:

And is it possible, CLEANTHES, said PHILO, that…you can still persevere in your Anthropomorphism, and assert the moral attributes of Deity, his justice, his benevolence, mercy, and rectitude, to be of the same nature with these virtues in human creatures? His power, we allow, is infinite; whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal is happy; therefore, he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite; he is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end; But the course of Nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore, it is not established for that purpose. Through the whole compass of human knowledge there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these. In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?

Hume then concludes: “EPICURUS’ old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Hume 63)

Many have contended that Epicurus’ above schematized paradox is worse than a paradox; that it is, in fact, an implicit contradiction containing inconsistent premises. They argue that, if God (whom we suppose to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent) exists, the world would be devoid of evil. There is evil in the world; therefore, they argue, God does not exist. (“Philosophy of Religion” 69).

Mackie’s argument

A native of Australia, John L. Mackie (1917-1981) taught at Oxford University until his death (“An Anthology” 160). Mackie maintained that with or without the free-will defense, the problem of evil remained. He put the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of the theist, who, said he, must explain why God does not intervene in the suffering in the world. (“Philosophy of Religion” 75) Mackie brings us back to the purely logical question of whether the notion of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God can coexist with the reality of evil (“An Anthology” 160). The answer, Mackie says, is no since good is opposed to evil and thus would eliminate it as far as it can. Omnipotence implies no limitations, and thus, a benevolent omnipotent God would eliminate evil completely.

Lewis’ argument against the existence or goodness of God

C.S. Lewis wrote that, as an atheist, he would have argued against the existence or goodness of God thus:

[Life] is so arranged that all the forms of it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms this process entails only death, but in the higher there appears a new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. In the most complex of all the        creatures, Man, yet another quality appears, which we call reason, whereby he is enabled to foresee his own pain which henceforth is proceeded with acute mental suffering, and to foresee his own death while keenly desiring permanence. It also enables men by a hundred ingenious contrivances to inflict a great deal more pain than they otherwise could have done on one another and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror, with just sufficient happiness interposed to give them, while it lasts, an agonized apprehension of losing it, and, when it is lost, the poignant misery of remembering (Lewis 2).

In conclusion he adds, “If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit” (Lewis 1-3).

Schopenhauer’s argument

“Profoundly pessimistic” (Durant 227) nineteenth century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, shared Lewis’ atheistic view of life. He argued that “happiness is, in reality and essence, negative only…We are not properly conscious of the blessings we possess, nor do we prize them, but think of them merely as a matter of course, for they gratify us only negatively, by restraining suffering” (qtd. in Durant 244). He also argued in line with Lewis that “the more distinctly a man knows – the more intelligent he is – the more pain he has; the man who is gifted with genius suffers most of all” (qtd. in Durant 245).

What is a theodicy?

Let us now turn from atheism to apologetics and examine Hick’s theodicy in defense of God. But first, let us define “theodicy.” A theodicy is theology’s defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in the face of suffering and evil in the world. (“Oxford” 363) Theism’s main defense when faced with the problem of evil is the free will defense. The earliest instance of this defense dates back to Augustine (354-430) and has been revisited in modernity by John Hick, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne. The essence of this defense is to add a premise that “it is logically impossible for God to create free creatures and guarantee that they will never do evil” to Epicurus’ paradox that eliminates the perceived inconsistency and contradiction in his propositions 1 through 3 (“Philosophy of Religion” 71). Thus God is not responsible for evil, but rather it is due to man’s bad, free, choices. “It was good of God to create free beings, but bad of them to misuse their freedom” (“Oxford” 142).

Augustinian and Irenaean theodicies

Theodicies generally fall into two categories: Augustinian and Irenaean. (Southwell) Augustine’s position was that God created sinless humans in a sinless, paradisiacal world, who through the misuse of their free will fell into sin. According to Augustine, some will be saved by grace, whereas others will perish everlastingly. The Irenaean position is that Adam was not a free agent, but rather a childlike creature that, in the fall, took his first step toward freedom. Thenceforth, God has been working with man to rescue him from an undeveloped life (bios) and deliver him into a state of self-realization in divine love, or into a spiritual life (zoe). This is the essence of Hick’s “soul-making” argument. (“An Anthology” 152)

Hick’s Irenaean free will theodicy

Recently retired Claremont Graduate School professor of philosophy John Hick posited in his book, Evil and the God of Love, an Irenaean, free-will theodicy (“An Anthology” 152), wherein he argues for the necessity of evil for the spiritual perfection of man’s character and person through a process of “soul-making.” John Hick was the first to formulate Irenaeus’s ideas into a complete theodicy. According to Hick, man was created in the image, but not in the likeness, of God. Thus, the world God created for us “is the sphere in which this second and harder stage of creative process takes place” (qtd. in “Philosophy of Religion” 74).

According to Hick’s theodicy, God created man in his image, i.e., with the potential to be godlike, but imperfect so that he could grow into his likeness, i.e., actually become godlike and enter into a personal relationship with him. Man was created with an epistemic distance from God that man can close by becoming more moral. This is best accomplished through suffering, which takes time and requires man’s cooperation. For this reason, and so that man could choose to enter into an authentic (free an uncompelled) personal relationship with God, God gave man free will. God created the universe with the possibility of evil and suffering as a moral test to incline man towards morality and spirituality, i.e., towards his image, and towards worthiness of heaven, and allows evil and suffering so as not to negate man’s free will. However, because God is loving, all of mankind will eventually develop into God’s image and live forever with him. While Hick adroitly combines the character-building or “soul-making” and free-will solutions to the problem of evil into one coherent theodicy, from an LDS point of view, Hick fails to definitively solve the problem of evil.

An LDS critique of Hick’s theodicy

From an LDS point of view, there are two fundamental problems with Hick’s theodicy, each corresponding to one of the two Irenaean purposes of life to which Hick refers in it: (1) Hick defines God’s omnipotence in the absolutist sense and then, to defend God’s absolute omnipotence in the face of evil, (2) Hick posits universal salvation. The problem with (1) is that God’s omnipotence can only correctly be understood in a non-absolutist sense. Furthermore, an absolutist understanding of God’s omnipotence prohibits man from becoming truly godlike (as Hick readily admits). The problem with (2) is that it negates free will or agency by eliminating the negative consequences of man’s wrong choices, or accountability. Free will or agency, by definition, must include consequences (good or bad) for the choices the agent makes or, in other words, accountability. Let us now examine each of these two fundamental problems and their attending consequences in turn.

Problem (1): The absolutism of God contradicts reality

Mormonism understands God’s omnipotence in a non-absolutist sense. In the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, David L. Paulsen explained that while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints uses the term “omnipotent” to describe the members of the Godhead, the Church does not in so doing subscribe to the traditional absolute sense of the word, but rejects on modern revelation creatio ex nihilo. The Mormon understanding of God’s omnipotence does not imply unlimited power, an internally self-contradictory view considering the reality of evil and suffering, which are irreconcilable with an absolutist interpretation of omnipotence (“Omnipotence” ).

An absolutist understanding of God’s omnipotence negates man’s ability to develop into a likeness of God. Hick, understanding this, interprets the Irenaean purpose of life of developing into a likeness of God as developing into a “finite” likeness of God. Hick rightly points out that it is impossible for a finite being truly to grow into the likeness of an infinite being. What in Irenaeus was a surmountable epistemic distance between God, whom Hick considers infinite, and man, whom Hick considers finite, becomes an insurmountable metaphysical one in Hick’s interpretation of Irenaeus. Thus, the absolutist interpretation of God’s omnipotence renders man incapable of truly developing into the likeness of God, which is contradictory to one of the two main Irenaean purposes of life upheld by Hick in his theodicy.

Problem (2): Universal salvation contradicts free will

Free will, or agency, must, by definition, include natural consequences (good or bad), or accountability, for the choices man makes in exercising it. As C. Terry Warner points out,

A being who is “an agent unto himself” is continually committing to be either an agent and servant of God or an agent and servant of Satan. If this consequence of choosing could be overridden or ignored, men and women would not determine their own destiny by their choices and agency would be void (“Agency” ).

Clearly (as Hick would readily admit), a being who is not “an agent unto himself” cannot enter into an authentic (free and uncompelled) personal relationship with God. Also, without agency and accountability, man cannot become godlike. To become godlike, man must exercise his agency to make right choices. Likewise, free will must include the possibility to make wrong choices that lead to estrangement from God. Without metaphysically libertarian free will, or agency, and its attending consequences, or accountability, man could not enter into an authentic (free and uncompelled) personal relationship with God, despite God’s will that he do.

Two salient Hickean objections to the LDS critique of Hick’s theodicy anticipated and refuted

Objection 1: God is absolute and created man ex nihilo

Judaism and mainstream Christianity affirm the absolutism of God. Judaic beliefs shifted from creatio ex materia to creatio ex nihilo beginning in the later part of the second temple period and ex nihilo creation subsequently became the interpretation of mainstream Christianity (Bradshaw 94). Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas affirmed that “Everything that in any way is, is from God … God is self-subsisting being itself … all beings other than God are not their own being, but are beings by participation … Nothing except God can be eternal … [for] … the will of God is the cause of things” (McMurrin 20).. Protestant reformer Martin Luther affirmed in concurrence with Aquinas that “nothing is superior or equal to God’s will, but [that] it is itself the rule of all things.”[1] Noted American evangelical theologian Donald G. Bloesch (26-27) later affirmed in like manner, “[God] is not simply the ground or depth of being but the Lord of being and the Lord over being … There is no necessity or justice to which God must conform.”[2]

Objection 1 refuted

Mormonism refutes the absolutism of God. Sterling M. McMurrin (1-2) points out that the ancient Greek philosophers accounted for the natural world without resorting to supernaturalism, simply assuming the world’s existence. He explains that Mormonism assumes this and God’s existence in the same way. It holds that, although God organized the world man inhabits, its component parts are coexistential with Him. There is more to reality than God and God is not the source of reality. Mormon theology, therefore, is non-absolutist. In LDS thought, God is conditioned by and related to the world and a part of it. Since the world is ultimately not his creation, he does not have absolute dominion over it. God is a part of the universe, “the minds and selves which exist but are not identified with him, the principles under which reality is structured, and perhaps even the value absolutes which govern the divine will” (McMurrin 29). According to Mormon theology, God is not the ultimate ground for being. He is a being among beings and therefore conditioned by being rather than being itself or the ground of being. “He is therefore finite, not absolute” (McMurrin 29). Reality, then, is absolute, not God.

Objection 2: Universal salvation is possible for an omnipotent God and necessary to his justice

Universal salvation is possible for an omnipotent God and necessary to his justice. In order for God to offer free will (which would normally bring about bad consequences when man makes wrong choices) and, at the same time, to remain just, he must eliminate the bad consequences of man’s bad choices. That is, God must offer universal salvation. Furthermore, without universal salvation, God’s purpose to bring everyone into an authentic (free and uncompelled) personal relationship with him would be frustrated. If God were to hold man accountable for his bad choices, God would be unjust since he put man in a position to make bad choices in the first place by giving him free will. However, God’s plans cannot be frustrated as God is (absolutely) omnipotent. That is, all things are possible for him.

Objection 2 refuted

Mormonism refutes universal salvation. According to LDS theology, universal salvation is impossible since reality, not God, is absolute, and agency includes accountability. As Brigham Young put it,

“the volition of the creature is free; this is a law of their existence and the Lord cannot violate his own law; were he to do that, he would cease to be God. … This is a law that has always existed from all eternity … every  intelligent being must have the power of choice, and God brings forth the results of the acts of his creatures to promote his Kingdom and subserve  his    purposes in the salvation and exaltation of his children” (Widstoe 62).

Furthermore, not only is man free to choose obedience or rebellion, but he must choose the one or the other (“Journal of Discourses” 13:282). Agency means both the ability and the necessity to choose between “liberty and eternal life” or “captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27-29; 10:23).

Salvation is conditional. Man must be worthy of salvation to be saved. As C. Terry Warner put it,

sin abridges the agency of sinners to the point that unless some power releases them from this bondage, they will be “lost and fallen” (Mosiah 16:4). That power is Christ’s Atonement, which overcomes the effects of sin, not arbitrarily, but on condition of wholehearted repentance. “Because … they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever … to act for    themselves” (2 Ne. 2:26) … This means that to those who blame God for allowing human suffering, Latter-day Saints can respond that suffering is less important than the gift of agency, upon which everything else depends…” (“Agency” ).

 An LDS theodicy (being a modified Hickean theodicy)

An LDS theodicy would be a modified Hickean theodicy wherein man literally has the potential eventually to develop into God’s image and live forever with him and is free to choose to do so or not. There are two salient differences between an LDS theodicy and Hick’s: (1) Man’s agency includes accountability, wherefore salvation is conditional and (2) there is only an epistemic, not a metaphysical, difference between God and man, wherefore man may literally become godlike should he choose to exercise his agency to become sufficiently moral and worthy. God desires man to enter into a personal relationship with him and even to become like him, but will not compel man to do so in any way.


As in Hicks and Hales above, the answer to the problem of evil is a combination of both categories of theodicies: Augustinian and Irenaean i.e., free will and “soul-making.” LDS scripture  teaches that; as Augustine, Hick, Plantinga and Swinburne have argued; free will allows for the possibility of greater good to come out of evil. At the same time, LDS scripture also teaches that, as Hick and Lewis have argued, “soul-making” is the purpose of life. However, contrary to Hick, LDS doctrine affirms man’s potential to enter into an authentic (free and uncompelled) personal relationship with God, without contradiction, through metaphysically libertarian free will and to become truly godlike, with the caveat that man may choose not to enter into this relationship with God or become godlike and therefore become estranged from God and never achieve his divine potential despite God’s will to the contrary. The purposes of life correctly enumerated by Irenaeus are only possible when God, like man, is correctly understood as finite, and agency includes accountability.

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Christopher Hurtado

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Christopher Hurtado is President and CEO of Linguistic Solutions and Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Political Science at Utah Valley University. He holds a BA in Middle East Studies/Arabic and Philosophy and an MA in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. He coauthored Vacation Spanish: A Survival Guide for Mexico, the Caribbean, Central & South America. He is married to children's book author and homeschool mom, Alysia Gonzalez. Together they have nine children. They are active in their church and in their community.