Evil and suffering – Sample answer

4 (a) For what reason may suffering create philosophical problems for a religious believer? (10)

Probably the thorniest problems for a religious believer is that classic atheist objection to the evidence of God based on the existence of evil and suffering; simply put: How can God allow evil and suffering?

Even Thomas Aquinas realised that there was a logical problems with the existence of God in the face of the evidence of evil.

David Hume summed it up succinctly: if evil exists (and it obviously does) then God cannot (as least not the God of classical theism).

Classical theism holds that God has three attributes, he is : omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. If, then, God is all powerful, all knowing and all good, how can evil exist? It does therefore God cannot!

It all seems so unfortunately logical. If God is all powerful he should be able to stop and prevent suffering. He doesn’t – why? If God is all knowing he knows that evil exists – why does he let it? If God is all good he shouldn’t want his creatures to suffer – yet we do – why?


The fact that there are two types of evil, doesn’t seem to help the problem. The evil and suffering that we observe in the world can be listed under two heading’s : those acts of evil which cause suffering which are perpetrated by man’s actions or even inactions – moral evil; and those which appear to be random acts of chance or bad luck like floods, earthquakes, famine and disease which constitute natural evil.

We could look at these both in detail but they both reduce to one basic philosophical problem: God created. If we believe that God created out of nothing then he must have created or at least allowed evil to creep into his design because it couldn’t have come from nowhere, which would imply that some things are self-creating and that God does not control the creation process. This application of logic leads the believer to the obvious question then – Why? If God created and therefore created evil he must have had a purpose which has caused Philosophers much heart and soul searching over the past few thousand years.


4 b) Outline Two solutions and comment of their success. (10)

As a result of the philosophical dilemma posed by the problems of evil. Theodicy’s or theories which explain what God’s reasons might be, were constructed by theologians.

Irenaeus ‘ theodicy states that God’s aim was and is perfection but that human perfection could not be created without depriving humans of free will, it must develop through free choice and therefore we must be free to disobey. Evil and suffering must then be allowed to exist to enable man to have opportunities for exercising their free-will. Unfortunately, man has often used it to cause suffering but God cannot compromise our freedom by intervening or removing suffering.

Irenaeus believes that eventually man will evolve so that he will always make the right choices of his own free will and then evil will overcome we will become like God intended and will live in Heaven.

In Irenaeus’ view God has to be at least partly responsible for evil, for humans were made imperfectly, unfinished we might say, with the capacity to learn and develop and grow into God’s likeness as Genesis 1 verse 26 says “let us make man in our own image, after our likeness”.

On the basis that absolute goodness could not be bestowed upon man without turning him into a puppet, evil must therefore by an option ; but it can at least be beneficial in enabling us to understand what good it. As Irenaeus said “How if we have no knowledge to the contrary, could we have instruction in that which is good?”

John Hick and Peter Vardy in modern times have expounded Irenaeus’ theodicy. John Hick explained that goodness developed by free choice in infinitely better than the choice-less goodness of robots. Surely from God’s point of view we would make much more worthy companions?

Peter Vardy used the analogy of the King who falls on love with a peasant girl – he could force her to marry him because he has that power – but instead he chooses to woo her and win her love.

John Hick whet on to say that our world may be “rather well adapted to the … purpose of soul making”.

The trouble with a theory like this is with the suffering itself. We cannot always see the purpose in suffering; the scale of suffering would seem to be out of all proportion to the lessons learned; perfectly good and innocent people (like Job in the Bible) seem to suffer for no reason at all.

Irenaeus’ answer to these are that there is a Heaven to which all go therefore any suffering is XXX and only temporary since we all die eventually.

J.L. Mackie feels that an omnipotent God could make beings which were capable of free-will and would always choose God therefore he can’t be! But John Hick still feels that these beings would not be as satisfactory as God.

We can give Swinburne the last word here “A generous God will seek to give us great responsibility… to make our lives valuable… The problem is that he cannot… without allowing much evil on the way”.

The success if this theodicy rests on the strength of the principle of free-will. It seems that the message of the story of Adam & Eve is that God gave us free-will. We are still learning what to do with it and how to use it.

Another solution is Process theodicy. This theology developed by A.N. Whitehead in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries holds that since God is intimately involved in the process of creation, he maintains an active relationship with it and is affected by it. Evolution is a process by which God creates and there are successes and failures. Pierre Feilhard de Chardin believed that the universe was moving through time from its “alpha point to its omega point” changing as it evolves and so does God. Since God is so bound up with him creation he suffers along with it.

The main assertion is that God is not omnipotent – quite a challenging and radical suggestion – He therefore did not create the universe but is created along with it. God is also therefore as bound by natural laws as we are and this is why he is unable to get rid of suffering.

In favour of this solution is the fact that it does remove the problem of why he doesn’t remove suffering – he cannot ; also for believers to feel that God is affected by our suffering not remote and XXX to it, maybe encouraging ; and since there is no guarantee that God will triumph over evil believers can be encouraged to join the fight rather than leave it to God – so its quite an active and positive solution.

On the other hand it denies that he is omnipotent and therefore denies that he’s the God of classical theism ; he is worthy of worship if he’s not omnipotent? ; if the future is so uncertain believers may feel despair ; and those who have suffered innocently may be unconvinced by the ‘ends justifying the means’ argument i.e. that evolution is justified on the grounds that good has outweighed evil (so far).

Henry, including St. Paul, have argued that suffering is a test of faith – in the end however it comes down to an individual’s stand point.

2002 – Evil and suffering answer

a) Outline the reasons why some beliefs about God mean that suffering poses problems for religious believers. [7]

The existence of evil and suffering is probably the single biggest obstacle to faith for religious believers. The problem is that it is very hard to justify the existence of God in the face of so much suffering and evil. It would appear easy for the objector to claim that any God worthy of worship would surely not allow his creation to suffer; how can suffering be an expression of love?

The essence of the problem lies in the classical definition of God as omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. This problem identified by Aquinas, among others, clearly suggests that if God is all loving he should want to remove suffering: if He does not then he is malevolent (has evil intentions) and if He cannot He is all not all-powerful. If He is all knowing He must know of mankind’s evil actions and his suffering and therefore His failure to act implies his ignorance.

As a result a theist is left with a dilemma – whether to believe in God despite the incontrovertible evidence that evil exists or to qualify their understanding of God to fit the evidence?

Atheists like Hume surmised that all three attributes of God could not co-exist. He put it like this: either God is not omnipotent or He is not omni benevolent or evil does not exist. Since, as stated earlier, evil indubitably exists then God is either dead or does not exist. Even Aquinas saw the logic of this position expressed in this way, however he disagreed with the premises of Hume‘s argument and suggested that the argument only really works if part of the definition of God is the concept of infinite goodness and also that God’s goodness is of the same quality as humans goodness. If we can accept that God’s idea of goodness may be different from ours perhaps his allowance of evil may have a reason that we just are too limited, as Hume himself argued, to understand!

Logical Positivists would have objected to this position on the grounds that a believer will continue to believe no matter what the evidence but that God dies the death of ‘a thousand qualifications‘ and the God that is left is as good as no God at all.


b) Examine and comment on the success or otherwise of any two theodicies. [13]

To answer this criticism various theodicies, or explanations for why God might allow evil and suffering to persist, were developed.

Augustine‘s is centred around the Biblical evidence that God created the earth and everything on it ‘perfect’. This is based on the Genesis account of creation in which after each day’s work God ‘saw that it was good.’ Made in the ‘likeness’ of God, man was given the same moral autonomy as God and Augustine believed that it was man’s sin, in the form of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, that consequently led to all moral as well as natural evil. In the absence of any better explanation it is easy to see why this theodicy held sway for so many years but in more recent years evolutionary theory has led to a reappraisal and we cannot, today, accept that this ‘original sin’ could possibly have been the cause of natural evils such as earthquakes and floods as we now know for sure that these natural events predate man’s arrival upon the scene by many millennia. Moral evil on the other hand, particularly to a fundamentalist believer could possibly be excused on this basis, except that that same biological evidence has made it quite clear that we were not all descended from Adam and Eve and therefore could not have been ‘seminally present in Adam’.

In addition objectors would certainly argue that a weakness is that the Biblical account is self-contradictory in that it states that God created out of nothing. If there was nothing there and God created everything that is then it is logical to assume that God created evil too. But Augustine has an answer to this; he regards evil as not so much a thing but rather an absence of good and as such it was not created and therefore God cannot be held to blame. Again, evil was not part of God’s original plan but it has been turned to advantage by giving the opportunity for redemption through belief in Christ. This is a real strength of Augustine’s theodicy because it allows for evil and God to co-exist but for there to be a real redemptive purpose to suffering.

strength is that man is made clearly responsible for, at least, much of the suffering that occurs on the planet and is given a reason to work to alleviate it. However, salvation for the ‘few’ who believe in Jesus is unrealistic since it takes no account of other faiths and in particular those who die before the birth of Jesus.

Irenaeus propounded another theodicy. Where Augustine‘s idea had been that this life was for the purpose of soul-deciding; that is that the moral choices we make in this life are those which govern whether we go to heaven or not, Irenaeus saw this world as a ‘vale of soul-making.’ He believed that this world was not created perfect but perfectly created to develop our souls so as to gradually grow to be like God through the choices we make between good and evil every day. After all as he said, ‘How if we had no knowledge to the contrary could we have instruction in that which is good?’

As such evolutionary theory is able to fit right into this. Evolution and its tenets of survival of the fittest and adaptation to the environment can help to explain why there is so much evil and suffering in the world, although one of the weaknesses of his theory is the sheer scale of suffering, like the holocaust. But at least it does suggest that out of evil can come good and sufferers don’t have to feel that suffering is completely random, that there is purpose to it. One of these is to enable virtues like honour, justice, loyalty and altruism to arise, all traits which are not only unnecessary to survival but potentially fatal to survival.

One of the
strengths of this theodicy is that it puts the responsibility squarely upon man’s shoulders and explains why God remains at an epistemic distance such that we cannot know him directly and why he does not intervene to remove suffering – he cannot. Not and allow us true free will.

Another of Irenaeus‘ assertions is the necessity of heaven for all, which while it may be reassuring to those of us who fail daily to be perfect is perhaps a little too generous; after all most of us may not think someone like Hitler deserves a place! Furthermore, the detractors would argue that many evil people don’t suffer and many sufferers are dehumanised and embittered by the experience even to losing their faith.

Overall Augustine‘s does not seem to have stood the test of time; evolutionary theory is a severe test of it as is the apparent unfairness of the idea of all humanity being tainted with ‘original sin.’ What kind of God would conceive of Hell to punish His creation for making their free choice not to believe in Him? As Peter Vardy suggested in his parable of The King and The Peasant Girl: God has allowed man to make his choice freely and He now has to abide by that.

Irenaeuson the other hand, while being flexible enough to allow for more modern scientific understanding, still does not explain the overall unfairness of suffering. Perhaps from an objective point of view we might accept that it is all part of God’s plan, which we cannot hope to understand, but which will ultimately result in the end of all evil and suffering as we progress to final perfection in heaven, but to anyone acquainted with suffering at first hand, to the millions affected by the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami, the Asian Quake of 2005, the on-going conflict in Iraq or the victims of crime of various sorts, it is cold comfort. Neither of these so called justifications or explanations really fully help us to understand why God exists and so does evil – do we change our view of God or cling blindly to faith in Him and His as yet unknown plans for us and our lives? But any theist must give this problem due consideration or be guilty of irrationality.



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