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Don E Peavy Sr

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From Problem to Paradox
by Don E Peavy Sr   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, December 03, 2008

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The Problem of Evil is the atheist's greatest challenge to theism. In this article, Peavy argues why evil is not a problem at all to those who believe in the God of the Bible.

The theoretical problem of evil”i arises within theistic belief that recognizes the propositions that:

1. God exists, and is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good; and

2. Evils exist.1

The problem has arisen because presumably one is not logically consistent with both propositions. In an attempt to answer this problem, philosophers and theologians have devised theodicies and defenses in attempts to explain how the two propositions are logically compatible with one another. Others have responded to these explanations with varying degrees of attacks on their logic or conclusion or both and thus the literature continues to expand while humans continue to suffer.

Holland appears to be the first to suggest that there was something wrong with the “form in which the problem was cast.ii Holland builds on the work of Mackie who argued that there is no valid solution of the problem [of evil] which does not modify at least one of the constituent propositions in a way which would seriously affect the essential core of the theistic position.”iii Phillips was next to suggest that the entire enterprise is in vain and that what needs to be done is to put theodicies aside, and thereby come to see the sense in which God is said to beyond human understanding.iv Phillips continues the attack on the project of theodicy making in Theism Without Theodicyv in which he attacks the framework of the problem.

The task of this article is to argue that the framework in which the debate has been cast historically is faulty and this has contributed to some rather “perverse” sayings about God and some rather strange, even bizarre theologies. What has been called traditionally the problem of evil is best understood as a paradox. This shift in our approach to what prima facie appears to be a contradiction in the nature/character of God, will result in our being able to say the least wrong things about God and free us from devoting so much time and energy to expounding theodicies when we could utilize our resources to do our part to ameliorate some of the evils in the world.

The methodology employed here will be to look at the theodicy crafted by Swinburne and to analyze it in view of the criticisms raised by Phillips to show the inherent flaws that attend any attempt to do that which Swinburne and others have attempted to do. We will begin with the critique of Holland who first hinted at the fact that there is a problem with the problem of evil and then go further by proposing a particular way of recasting the “problem.”


There is a large segment of people who believe in the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition and who confess that God is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscience) and perfectly good. Such persons are called theists. There are other manifestations of belief that do not confess one or more of these basic propositions who nevertheless consider themselves part of that noble tradition. For many of these latter persons, the problem of evil as articulated here, either does not arise or does not keep them up at night to the extent it does theists. We are concerned here with the former--those theists who find it difficult to rest easy because of the tension that tugs at the seat of their reason and the threat the problem of evil poses to the rational systems that make up their world view.

This problem of evil arises when theists look out at the world, and unable or unwilling to seek refuge behind metaphysical word games that suggest they reinterpret their visions, are forced to admit that there is evil in the world. There are, according to Swinburne, physical evil, mental evil, state evil, and moral Most of those who have crafted theodicies, however, have not followed Swinburne=s categories of evil. Instead, such theorists have denominated evil as moral and natural.vii Moral evil is the evil done by humanity and natural evil is that done by nature.viii The existence of this evil is said to be prima facie evidence that either God does not exist, is not omnipotent, is not omniscient, or is not perfectly good.

The theist says that the propositions about God are true and are compatible with the existence of evil. However, the atheist attacks this position and argues that “if God exists, then being omniscient, he knows under what circumstances evil will occur; ... and being omnipotent, he is able to prevent its occurrence. Hence, being perfectly good, he will prevent its occurrence.”ix Thus, according to the atheist, because evil persists in the world, one or more of the propositions affirmed by theists are false. Theists respond by creating theodicies to prove that their propositions about God are compatible with the existence of evil. That is the road traveled by Swinburne.

Swinburne begins his theodicy with Plantinga's “free will defence.”x It had been supposed that Plantinga's Free Will Defense had solved the problem of evil. The defense holds that “it is not logically possible for an agent to make another agent such that necessarily he freely does only good actions ... It is a good thing that there exist free agents.”xi Thus, because humanity is created as free moral agents, and because making evil choices is a “necessary consequence”of being free, it is not “logically possible” for God to have created humanity such that humans always does that which is good.xii Hence, the existence of evil is compatible with the theistic confessions about God because humans have free will to choose good or evil. Evil exists because so often humans choose evil.

Unfortunately, Plantinga's defense did not solve the problem of evil as many had hoped. There are a number of problems with the solution worked out by Plantinga and some of these are addressed by Swinburne and so they will not be repeated here. What Swinburne does is to modify the free will defense by adding that as free agents, humans “do not have fully deterministic precedent causes.”xiii By this, Swinburne means that it is not possible to create free agents and at the same time insure that such agents never choose to do evil. The existence of evil then, is a logical price” to pay for humanity's freedom.xiv

For Swinburne, the price is not too high because evil assists humanity in building character. Humans have been created immature so that they can “gradually make decisions which affect the sort of beings they will be. ... And one of the great privileges which a creator can give to a creature is to allow him to help in the process of education ...xv Swinburne goes on to say that “Evils give men the opportunity to perform those acts which show men at their best. A world without evils would be a world in which men could show no forgiveness, no compassion, no self-sacrifice.”xvi

To the critic who says the evil in the world is such as to suggest that God has gone too far in God's system of education, Swinburne answers not so. There are limits to the amount of pain a person can suffer [and] from time to time God intervenes in the natural order which he has made to prevent evil which would otherwise occur.xvii Swinburne also argues that the universe is incomplete – that humanity has the opportunity to participate with God in God's creative process.

He concludes by adding another proposition to the equation, God has entered history and suffered as a man to show that God asks no more of humanity than God asks of God. Swinburne concludes his theodicy by saying that A creator is more justified in creating or permitting evils to be overcome by his creatures if he is prepared to share with them the burden of the suffering and effort.”xviii

Swinburne fine tunes his theodicy almost two decades later but does not stray from the main formulations. He adds the concept of “depravity” as inherent in humanity and this in part explains humanity's inclination to evil.xix He argues that this depravity is a “necessary condition of a greater good.”xx

D.Z. Phillips severely criticizes the theodicy Swinburne has constructed.xxi Phillips finds Swinburne's conclusions “perverse.”xxii Phillips identifies rightly the flaws inherent in Swinburne's theodicy. He sees the “difficulty of the metaphysical level at which the 'ensuing' or 'seeing to it' is supposed to take place, and ... the difficulty of knowing what it would be to see to or ensure the formation of character.”xxiii Phillips notes that Swinburne has diminished the level of human suffering to no more than opportunities for learning and that no matter how egregious the harm, all evils are part of God's “finishing school.”xxiv It is a school from which one either graduates or dies. And even those who might make it out of the school, often are so maimed and wounded by the tests undergone that they find it difficult to attach any type of meaningful analysis to the lessons learned and the costs nor is life anymore worth the living as a result of their education.

The world in which most humans live, exist and have their being is a world beset by natural and moral evils. It is a world where disaster can strike at any time without “... rhyme or reason. Where, if much can be done to influence character, much can also bring about such influence over which we have no control.”xxv It seems to Phillips, and to this author, that Swinburne's God is one who is morally insensitive to the pain and suffering of God's creation and who asks “... a lot of his creatures. [Consequently, if such a God as Swinburne describes was to visit] our world, ... those who said that there was no room at the inn would be right.”xxvi


In 1980, three years after the debate between Swinburne and Phillips took place, Holland sounded the alarm that something was shaky about the foundation on which theodicies had been constructed. He charged that theodicists purport “to establish the existence of a solution-space without putting anything in it.”xxvii Holland noted that those who attempted to solve the problem of evil, always started by providing an extra thesis.”xxviii He quotes Mackie as having listed four of the most popular of these extra thesis:

1. Good cannot exist without evil; or Evil is a necessary counterpart to good;

2. Evil is necessary as a means to good;

3. The universe is better with some evil in it than it could be if there were no evil;

4. Evil is due to human free will.xxix

Holland uses Mackie's term “havering” to describe this process of adding another thesis or two to the theistic propositions as a way of demonstrating that the problem of evil has been

Holland labels the results achieved by havering as “fallacious.”xxxi He concludes that the problem of evil is insoluble. He deconstructs the theodicy project but offers nothing by way of reconstruction. The main value of his work is in pointing out to us that if the problem of evil is to be solved, it must be worked out based on the propositions out of which the problem emerges. It cannot be resolved adding a new thesis for this can be done ad infinitum.

We have shown above how Phillips' critique of Swinburne points out some of the problems with the theodicy project. Of course, Phillips initial response is to merely show that Swinburne's solution is no solution at all. The concepts of Swinburne border on the bizarre and do more harm than good to the image of God. It is almost two decades later that Phillips begins to see a problem with the framework in which the problem of evil debate is being carried out. In On Not Understanding God,” Phillips suggests that the “limits of human existence are beyond human understanding.”xxxii After reviewing the traditional problem of evil debate, Phillips concludes that “[W]hat we need is to put theodicies aside, and thereby come to see the sense in which God is said to be beyond human understanding.”xxxiii Phillips, like Holland, points out that there is an inherent flaw in the form of the question and the reasoning used in attempts to answer it. He notes that theodicies have the immoral audacity to try to impose a false order on life's contingencies.”xxxiv

Another failure among those who engage in theodicy making is that such persons appear as if they have some insight into the nature of God that is denied the rest of us. They speak of best possible worlds” and the eschaton as if they are privy to the workings of God in a way no other person is. The problem of evil presumably has been approached as “it arises within the context of biblical religion.”xxxv However, seldom do those who construct theodicies, with the exception of Stephen H. Davis, appeal to the biblical authority to tell us something about God and just what it is God is doing in creation. For instance, in the Adams' book, neither Mackie, Pike, Wykstra, Allen, Chisholm, Penelhum, Plantinga, nor Rowe quote scripture. Marilyn McCord Adams quotes scripture once in her introduction and none in her own essay. Robert Merrihew Adams quotes scripture once and Hick quotes it three times. How is it possible to carry on a debate regarding a subject without referring to the best evidence of the nature and purpose of that subject? Moreover, of what benefit is a theodicy if its basic premise is opposed by the Bible?

For instance, the Bible speaks of most of human suffering as flowing from the original sin of Adam and Eve. This is a far cry from the “character building” purpose that Swinburne ascribes to suffering. Moreover, Plantinga's free will defense fails to appreciate the reality of Satan and the influence Satan has in a fallen world. It is no wonder then that theodicies have been called “perverse” and “fallacious.” The time has come to bring the enterprise of theodicy making to an end.


What I propose is that we no longer refer to the problem of evil as a problem. A problem typically suggests that a particular question can be answered or matter resolved. A mathematical problem is one that can be solved once one learns certain mathematical principles. We speak of the problem of teenage pregnancies and then set forth a number of social, political and family answers aimed at solving the problem. Of course, there are problems, like acid rain, poverty, and crime that seem to have a solution but which persists either because we lack whatever it takes to implement the right solution or we have not yet discovered the right answer. And of course, there are problems like traffic congestion that persist because no one wants to be the first to do what the solution demands.

I doubt that the problem of evil fits nicely into any of the aforementioned categories of problems. That is because, quite frankly, as Mackie and Holland say directly and Phillips suggests, the problem of evil cannot be solved in its present form. Moreover, any attempt to solve it in its present form requires the addition of another proposition which makes the problem other than what it is. Thus, the problem with theodicies, inter alia, is that they start out attempting to solve the problem of evil but end up altering the problem as posed and thus at best resolving a problem of their own making and not the problem which they set out to solve. It is like deciding to take a bus as a way of solving the lack of mileage one gets with one's automobile. One has in fact solved a problem, but one has not solved the problem presented initially by an automobile that gives low gas mileage.

The best approach to the problem of evil is to recast it as a paradox. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a paradox is “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true .” There are well known paradoxes in mathematics and other areas of knowledge that we need not enumerate here. There are many others in the Judeo-Christian tradition such as in Matthew 8:22 where Jesus says to “let the dead bury the dead.”

Therefore, it will not be odd or perverse to add another paradox to a tradition in which paradoxes play a prominent role. Shifting our attention from a problem of evil to a paradox of evil will not diminish the suffering of humanity nor play metaphysical games with reality. Nor will the approach I propose result in perverse” and “fallacious” arguments or results. When those who are suffering ask us why they suffer, we can be silent and hold them and be present with them. We need not strain for some explanation or try to espouse some theodicy or defense.


Moreover, when the atheist tries to make sport of us who hold onto such a paradox, we can in faith and confidence resist the temptation to follow the atheist down a road that takes us farther away from God and our fellow suffering brothers and sisters. Rather than engaging the atheist in a struggle of the atheist's own making (since what the atheist perceives as a problem is no longer a problem for us), we can avail ourselves of the wisdom that Christ gave us for such occasions, “Do not give what is holy to dogs, nor cast your pearls before swine ...”xxxvi









1Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams, eds., The Problem of Evil, Oxford Readings in Philosophy. Oxford Univ. Press (1990), 1-2.

i.Professor Davis has raised the emotive problem of evil (EPE)in his work, “Free Will and Evil,” in Encountering Evil, 2d. ed., ed. D.Z. Phillips (2001); however, the vast majority of the literature concerns the logical problem of evil (LPE) and so the LPE will be the focus of this paper. I am of the opinion that what I say about the LPE can be said as well about the EPE.

ii. R.F. Holland, “On the Form of 'The Problem of Evil',” chap. in Against Empiricism, Tolowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble (1980).

iii. Davis & Davis, supra., J.L. Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence,” 37.

iv. D.Z. Phillips, “On Not Understanding God,” chap. in Wittgenstein and Religion, London: St. Martin's Press (1993), 154.

v. D.Z. Phillips, “Theism Without Theodicy,” chap. in Encountering Evil (2001), 1.

vi. Richard Swinburne, “The Problem of Evil,” in Reason and Religion, ed. Stuart c. Brown, Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press (1977), 83.

vii. In an update of his theodicy, Swinburne adopts the moral/natural evil analysis. Richard Swinburne, “Why God Allows Evil,” in Is There A God? New York: Oxford Univ. Press (1996), 97.

viii. Davis 9.

ix. Swinburne 81.

x. Ibid. 84, footnote 6.

xi. Ibid. 85.


. Ibid.

xiii. Ibid. 86.

xiv. Ibid. 88.

xv. Ibid. 89.

xvi. Ibid. 90.

xvii. Ibid.

xviii. Ibid. 102.

xix. Swinburne Why God 101.

xx. Ibid.

xxi. D.Z. Phillips, “The Problem of Evil,” in Stuart C. Brown, ed. Reason and Religion, Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press (1977).

xxii. Ibid. 112.

xxiii. Ibid. 106.

xxiv. Ibid. 112.

xxv. Ibid. 119.

xxvi. Ibid. 121.

xxvii. Holland 230.

xxviii. Ibid. 231.

xxix. Ibid. 232.

xxx. Ibid. 234-35.

xxxi. Ibid.

xxxii. Phillips “On Not Understanding God” 153.

xxxiii. Ibid. 154.

xxxiv. Ibid. 162.

xxxv. Adams & Adams 2.

xxxvi. Matthew 7:6, NKJV.

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