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Theodicy is a branch of theology that studies how the existence of a good or benevolent God is reconciled with the existence of evil. An attempt to reconcile the co-existence of evil and God is sometimes called "a theodicy". See the article on the problem of evil for examples.


Origin of the term

The term theodicy comes from the Greek théos (meaning "god") and diké (meaning "right" or "just"), meaning literally "the justice of God". The term was coined in 1710 by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz in a work entitled Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal. The purpose of the essay was to show that the evil in the world does not conflict with the goodness of God, that, indeed, notwithstanding its many evils, the world is the best of all possible worlds (see Panglossianism.)

The problem of evil

The problem of evil has from earliest times engrossed the attention of Western philosophers. In his Dictionnaire historique et critique, the well-known skeptic Pierre Bayle denied the goodness and omnipotence of God on account of the sufferings experienced in this earthly life. The Théodicée of Leibniz was directed mainly against Bayle. Imitating the example of Leibniz, other philosophers also called their treatises on the problem of evil theodicies. In a thorough treatment of the question, the proofs both of the existence and of the attributes of God could not be disregarded, and the knowledge of God was gradually brought within the domain of theodicy, and theodicy came to be synonymous with natural theology (theologia naturalis) that is, the department of metaphysics which presents the positive proofs for the existence and attributes of God and solves the opposing difficulties. Theodicy, therefore, may be defined as an attempt to explain the nature of God through the exercise of reason alone. This is in juxtaposition to theology, which attempts to explain the nature of God using supernatural revelation and faith.

Some have argued that the predetermined goal of theodicy (that of justifying the existence of God with the existence of evil) tarnishes any aspirations it might have to be a serious philosophical discipline, because an intellectual pursuit having a predefined goal and preassumed conclusions cannot be deemed in any reasonable way to be methodical, scientific, or rational. Should we respect an inquiry whose goal is not to find out the truth, but to prove by any means possible that a particular thing reasonably doubted (Bayle and all who follow him) is true? Proceeding from the proposition to be shown to find a proof of that proposition invites confirmation bias on the part of the theorist.

Others argue that theodicy, like all of science and reason, begins with a hypothesis, and then tests the hypothesis to see if the hypothesis can be reconciled with experience and reason. It is common for mathematicians to begin with a proposition that seems to be true (for example Fermat's last theorem) and then work to demonstrate the truth of that proposition through a series of rigorously logical steps. They assert that just as the existence of God may be reasonably doubted, it may also be reasonably believed, because the existence or non-existence of God is, by its very nature, beyond the realm of observable and verifiable phenomena with which science concerns itself. Therefore, since it is reasonable to believe that God may exist, theodicy is a reasonable attempt to reconcile the hypothesized existence of God with the perceived existence of evil. While theodicy cannot prove the existence of God, it can make belief in God reasonable, by showing that the existence of God is not necessarily incompatible with the existence of evil. On the other hand, unlike in mathematics, in a philosophical project like a theodicy it is difficult to say what precisely constitutes a valid logical step, and though one proponent of a theodicy may be convinced of its rigor, another person may find it logically weak or reject some of its assumptions. For this reason, theodicies tend to be controversial, even among theists.

The nature of God

Theodicy investigates the question of to God's nature and attributes.

The latter are in part absolute (quiescentia) and in part relative (operativa). In the first class belong traits such as infinity, immutability, omnipresence, and eternity; to the second class the knowledge, volition, and action of God. The action of God includes the creation, maintenance, and government of the world, the co-operation of God with the activity of the creature, and the working of miracles. While many grant that all our cognition of God is incomplete, this branch of theodicy attempts to explain those traits of God which we have some understanding of. It includes, for instance, the classical problem of how God can be infinitely good and yet allow evil to occur.

  • Calvinism asserts that all events are part of God's plan, and therefore, though they may appear to be evil to us, God intends them for a higher purpose that only he knows, and they are not evil in God's eyes.
  • Open Theism asserts that although there is a basis for belief in God, there is no basis for belief in God's omnipotence, omniscience, or benevolence; and that although God is the most powerful, most loving, and most knowing, he is not infinite. Evil therefore exists really, tangibly, and in direct conflict with God's will.
  • Maltheism asserts that the "problem of evil" is not a problem at all—the initial question has a simple answer, there is no way that a benevolent omnipotent God would allow evil in the world. Therefore, they reason, God is either not benevolent or not omnipotent.
  • "modified Dualism", since the powers of good and evil are unequal, and the evil power is merely tolerated by the good power, who turns all the acts of the evil power into eventual good. Classical Christianity, i.e, from the Apostolic Fathers to Augustine, has been characterized as "modified Dualism". Sts. Augustine and Basil the Great both explicitly mention this idea. St. John of Damascus proposed that God deliberately leaves some events "in our hands". In early modern times (1714) a modified Dualism was advocated by St. John (Maximovitch) of Tobolsk.

Examples of theodicy

Resolutions to the problem of evil generally entail one of the following:

  • What humans consider evil or suffering is an illusion or unimportant.
    • Events thought to be evil are not really so (such as deaths by natural disaster).
  • A perfect God is not only good but also evil, since perfection implies no lacking, including not lacking that which is evil. A lacking of evil would imply that there is something external to his all-encompassing perfection. This is related to monistic philosophies such as advaita, or pantheism.
  • Evil is the consequence of God permitting humans to have free will, or God may intend evil and suffering as a test for humanity. Without the possibility to choose to do good or evil acts humanity would be nothing but robots.
  • Evil is the consequence, not cause, of people not observing God's revealed will. Universal reciprocated love would solve most of the problems that lead to the evils discussed here.
  • God's ultimate purpose is to glorify Himself (which, by definition, He alone is infinitely entitled to, without vanity). He allows evil to exist so that we will appreciate goodness all the more, in the same way that the blind man healed by Jesus appreciated his sight more so than those around him who had never experienced blindness.
  • God's divine plan is good. What we see as evil is not really evil; rather, it is part of a divine design that is actually good. Our limitations prevent us from seeing the big picture.
  • God created perfect angels and perfect humans with a free will. Some of his creations chose independence and lost their perfection: they began to sin, which resulted in evil doing and death. For a while God will allow this to continue, so that it can be proven that his creations can not be happy while independent from God because this was the challenge which caused the rebellion in the first place. In due time God will restore the people who choose to depend on God to perfection and so bring an end to sin and with it an end to evil.
  • God is a righteous judge; people get what they deserve. If someone suffers, that is because they committed a sin that merits such suffering. (This is also known as the just world hypothesis).
  • Suffering is educational. It makes us better people.
  • Evil is one way that God tests humanity, to see if we are worthy of His grace.
  • Evil and pain exist in this world only. This world is only a prelude to the afterlife, where no pain will exist. The scales of justice are balanced in the afterlife.
  • The world is corrupt and of itself shouldn't have been created, but the work of Christ (or some savior figure) redeems the world and thus God's creation of it.
  • Absolute evil is not actually real. Rather, it is only a condition of not enough goodness. (See also mention of William Hatcher's explanation.)
    • Evil is relative to good; neither good nor evil could exist without both existing simultaneously.
  • Karma: All good is balanced by evil, and it is only when we achieve proper balance that our reincarnation ends. This explains why an infant may be born into misery, due to experiences they will have later in that life, or in previous or later lives.
  • Religions such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism, and even some Christian groups, dispense with the issue by embracing various forms of dualism, in which God is opposed by an evil counterpart, and is therefore not omnipotent.
  • Maltheists go even further than the Gnostics, in a sense, by saying that God simply is evil himself. To them, the problem of evil is not a problem at all, and is neatly resolved by acknowledging that an omnipotent benevolent God would not create a world in which there was evil, concluding that God, assuming he exists, is either not omnipotent, not benevolent, or perhaps both. (They frequently add that if God is not omnipotent but claims that he is, he is thus lying, and consequently is also justifiably deemed evil in nature.)
  • Most atheists believe that statements about God are meaningless. Some atheists believe that the problem of evil can be used to prove that God does not exist by the method of reductio ad absurdum. However, as maltheists point out, this method does not prove that God does not exist, but rather that if he does exist he is not omnipotent or benevolent, as he and his followers might claim him to be. The logical error may also fall in other places: for example, that evil does not exist, or that God creating evil does not make God evil.

Analysis of these solutions

The following are detailed analyses of the above stated solutions.

The free will theodicy

Assume that both God and Man possess ultimate free will. Why should free will lead to evil? The traditional answer is that humans are corrupt at heart, and they consequently choose to harm their fellows, but that would assume a will that is evil rather than free. It is said to be true that, in order to be free, we must do evil, for God is traditionally said to be both free and morally perfect. Rather, as a matter of contingent fact, humans happen to choose evil by their exercise of freedom. And if God were to 'get involved' and start influencing human actions for the better, then the actions wouldn't be free any longer. Human freedom means that God cannot guarantee human perfection (see incompatible-properties arguments).

Why should it be better for God to respect human freedom? What's so great about free will? The response is that free will is what makes us valuable moral agents, and that, if God were to deny us our freedom, human society would be like an assemblage of robots. Perhaps there would be some value in such a world, but it is said to be nothing compared to the free moral agency possessed by God and actual humans. All the cruelty that we humans freely perform is indeed regrettable, but it is a small price to pay for freedom.

No matter how successful this response, it can only explain evil caused by human free will. It does not explain any catastrophic horror that has nothing to do with human choices. Think of earthquakes, floods, and disease—so-called 'natural evil' or 'acts of God'. We cannot confront a paralyzed, demented, and blind Tay-Sachs child and his despondent parents and then chalk up the entire wretched scenario to free will. No one chose it. Healing that child wouldn't tread on anyone's freedom. At its best, the value of free will is relevant to, and can only excuse God for, a mere portion of the evil we find. Whether of not we call that 'evil', we must stick with the evil that we humans freely create—so-called 'moral evil'.

But there is another, similar problem. Some instances of moral evil already involve violations of free will—e.g., rape. For God to step in and deny the violator his freedom would also be to protect the victim's freedom. In such cases, it all comes down to whose free will is more valuable—which instance of coercion would be worse? And it is morally implausible that the best thing to do is to respect a rapist's freedom to rape unhindered rather than protecting the victim's freedom. So, for a large category of moral evil—all moral evil involving coercion—it's automatically implausible that the value of free will can justify God's inaction. We must then narrow the domain of admissible evil yet again.

With the candidate evil suitably restricted, we can ask: Is God off the hook? Many say no. Some deny the existence of free will, and so can dismiss the entire proposal as mere fiction. Compatibilists sometimes attack the essential premise that God cannot influence our choices without thereby cancelling our freedom. After all, compatibilists believe that determinism is consistent with human freedom. And if determinism can allow for freedom, perhaps so can appropriate divine meddling with our decisions. The upshot of these challenges is that, to absolve God, we need a reason to think that he really couldn't influence our choices without cancelling our freedom. The customary theistic appeal is to a libertarian conception of free will, but such a conception is under heavy fire from its rivals.

Another challenge focuses on different ways to interfere with freedom. One way is to 'jump in' and take control of the agent, dictating its every movement and thought. This is the kind of coercion we envision in mad scientist stories. But it might also be the kind of coercion that motivates our above intuition that if God got involved, we'd all be 'robots'. We should remember that there are other, softer kinds of coercion. Look to policemen and jailers. They don't take control of an agent's decisions. They just threaten the agent with physical force and restraint, and carry out their threats if necessary. Policemen and jailers restrict our freedom, but it is a restriction we're willing to accept, for our own protection and safety. Now, return to God. If he were to get involved as a Divine Policeman, making threats and enforcing them, then would we be 'robots'? Seemingly not. Instead, we'd be citizens of a divine nation-state, and a very safe and reliable nation-state at that. But then the moral claim is dubious—it's no longer clear that God should hold back. Taking total control of our decisions would be wrong, but laying down the law might be right. So why hasn't God done it?

Several further challenges attack the idea that evil-eliminating divine interventions must cancel human freedom. These challenges suggest different ways for God to eliminate evil, all the while leaving our free will untouched—"innocent interventions". One proposal is for God to fortify humans as to render us less vulnerable to the sins of our fellows. We could be bullet-proof, invulnerable to poison, etc. That way, humans would retain the capacity for evil choices and activities; it's just that such evil behavior would be harmless to the 'victims' and futile for the evildoers.

Another proposal is that God allow sinful acts, but stop their evil consequences. So if I fire a rifle at your head, God allows me to make the decision, but then makes the trigger stick, or the rifle misfire, or the bullet pop out of existence. Such interventions would, happily, divorce evil choices from the subsequent suffering. A common objection to this solution would be that without observing the evil consequences of our actions we would not truly be freely choosing between good and evil. In other words it is not only important for us to have freedom to choose our actions but also to have freedom to choose evil actions. Presumably, a world where guns only fired when aimed at just targets would not truly present us the option to choose evil since it would be apparent that no harm comes from our actions. Of course this requires a justification of why it is good or necessary to have situations which tempt us to evil.

However, it might be claimed that the supposed conflict between the freedom to choose evil and suffering is merely a figment of our limited human imaginations. Presumably an omnipotent god could isolate each of us in a 'virtual' world where others appear to suffer but in reality are soulless, experience free imitations of life, i.e., each soul could inhabit its own matrix filled entirely with programs imitating human suffering but not actually experiencing it. Admittedly, nothing prevents one from believing this is actually the case and may present a way out of the dilemma for those who are merely committed to an omnipotent, benevolent god. However, a theology which rests on the deliberate deception that our acts can do evil orchestrated by the supreme being is not a comfortable match for any religion dependent on revelation and hence implicitly the veracity of god.

The Calvinistic theodicy

John Calvin and other Reformed Christians have held to a form of theological determinism and compatibilism, and thus have denied that man possesses free will in the libertarian sense. So for them the problem of evil could not find resolution in appeals to such freedom. For them, the issue had to be resolved within the very nature of the compatibilistic relationship itself.

For God to hold man morally accountable, yet to predestine everything that man thinks or does, something other than the "freedom of contraries" must ground this accountability. Calvinists believe that this something is the capacity of man to choose and act according to his moral state of being, the "freedom of choice". But man's moral state of being is presently subject to sin, and this fact, itself, is part of the problem of evil. So one must inquire as to the cause of man's subjection to sin.

Reformed theology places the cause of this condition in the first man, Adam, whom they believe to be the legal representative of the entire human race. This doctrine, called Federal Headship, is also present in the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement (and its corollary, Justification by Faith). As a representative of the race, when he sinned against God by eating the forbidden fruit, the entire race fell under the curse of God with him. Various explanations of the exact relationship of Adam to his posterity have been offered, but what concerns us at present is only the doctrine of Adam's legal representation of the race.

Here another question presents itself. How could Adam be held accountable (and with him the entire human race), if he was not free to do other than he did do—if God really intended for him to do exactly as he did? With this question we come to the heart of the Reformed Theodicy. The main points are, firstly, that no one has ever been held accountable for what they could have thought or done, only for what they have thought or done, and for their purposes in thinking or doing it; and, secondly, that though both Adam and God intended that evil should come about, their purposes were distinct, God's being ultimately good, Adam's being ultimately evil.

The Reformed Theodicy boils down to the distinction of purposes between the primary agent (God) and the secondary agents (humans). While it is true that God intends to bring about evil, God's purpose is not, of itself, evil (cf. Gen. 50:20). This idea can be expressed by analogy:

Picture a man holding down a child while other men stick pieces of metal into the child's eye, all the while the child is screaming in pain, crying out for them to stop. On the surface it seems like a horrible, cruel thing these men are doing to the child. But if we add the information that the child is bleeding to death from the nasal cavity, that there is no time for anesthetic, that the man holding him down is his loving father, and that the men sticking the metal into his eye are doctors trying to save his life, then the problem of evil disappears. The evil doesn't disappear, it is still there (just ask the child!), but the problem of evil is no longer present, because the intention is good.

In other words not all actions which bring about suffering or even evil acts are necessarily evil themselves. There is no problem of evil in the example with the father, and arguably no evil in the sense of moral failing, because his actions serve a greater good. Similarly one can serve a greater good even if you know that your choice will bring about some immoral action. In either case the Calvinist must still claim that God's choice to create a flawed man who would engage in sin or evil does serve a greater good. Thus it seems this position allows us no choice but to accept that some mysterious good is served by having a world filled with imperfect and sometimes evil men as opposed to a world where only those souls who will choose to be good and holy are born.

Opponents of this position have argued that it endorses an "ends justifies the means" system of ethics, but this charge is suspect since Reformed Christians claim that the means, of themselves, are truly evil, and therefore subject to punishment, not justified by the ends to which God intends them.

Proponents have argued that the Free Will Theodicy is actually, in principle, no different from the Reformed Theodicy, it simply places the bare possession of libertarian free will as the good that God intented to bring about by the existence of evil, and that the Reformed Theodicy does more justice to the Biblical account of God and man.

Relativity of goodness — evil is not absolute

A less well known approach has been that of the mathematical logician William Hatcher ( He has written about the problem of evil from a relational logic point of view. Hatcher has argued that the problem may be resolved with a minimum of theological assumptions. This is quite appealing because it does not tie the traditional problem to any particular brand of theology. It is part of an approach to traditional philosophical problems that Hatcher calls Minimalism (not to be confused with the use of the same term in art and pop culture).

Briefly, Hatcher uses relational logic to show that very simple models of moral value that include a minimalist concept of "God" cannot be consistent with the premise of evil as an absolute, whereas goodness as an absolute is entirely consistent with the other postulates concerning moral value. In Hatcher's view one can only validly talk about an act A being "less good" than an act B, one cannot logically commit to saying that A is absolutely evil, unless one is prepared to abandon other more reasonable principles.

Human nature

Another, more subtle proposal is for God to alter human nature for the better. Now, talk of improving our nature immediately strikes us as coercive -- surely, it would rob us our freedom as moral beings! But remember that we already have a nature, a bundle of tendencies that influences our choices. Now, the most ardent determinist must grant that human nature alone does not determine our choices. But the most ardent libertarian must in turn grant that our choices are significantly influenced by our natures. It is easier for a sociopath to kill a child than it is for the rest of us. It is easier for us to send money to help our children than to help complete strangers. This is true, even if ultimately we each have final say on our decisions. Now note that this human nature is flawed. We are disposed to be cruel and callous in many ways. The world might be a better place if humans shared a more virtuous and generous nature.

But would it violate our freedom for God to have given us a better nature? Perhaps not. We might choose a kinder nature, if, for example, virtue came in pill form. We might wish it were easier for us to do good. This suggests that an improved nature may be in accordance with our free will, and not contrary to it. Moreover, if God exists, then surely he had a large hand in crafting human nature. As long as he's giving us some nature or another, why not shoot for a virtuous nature? If it's wrong to make humans virtuous, then why should it be less wrong to make humans corrupt?

One salient theistic reply is that our corrupt nature is due to the Original Sin of the first human couple. Their free choice changed us for the worse, and for God to change us for the better would be to disrespect their free choice. But this reply raises too many troubling issues of its own. First, the wholesale corruption of mankind was, for Adam and Eve anyway, an unforeseeable consequence of Original Sin; one can no more allege that they truly chose human corruption than that Gavrilo Princip truly chose to plunge Europe into war. Big mistakes don't count as freely chosen outcomes. Second, even if Adam and Eve really did choose human nature for the rest of us, why should their choice count for so much? Don't the rest of us have a say? Invoking Original Sin only makes God look more and more morally confused.

God is not omnipotent or omniscient

The problem of evil only exists when one simultaneously holds that God is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful) and benevolent (all good). The problem of evil does not exist if one gives up any of these three beliefs.

Some schools of the Kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) argue that the creation of the universe required a self-limitation on the part of God, and that evil is a consequence of God's self-imposed exile from the universe He created. In some readings of this theology, God has deliberately created an imperfect world. The question then arises as to why God would create such a world, and the standard response is to maximize human freedom and free will. Other readings of the same Kabbalistic texts one can hold that this is the best world that God could possibly create, and that God is not omnipotent. Given this reading, the problem of evil does not exist.

In some theistic Unitarian Universalism, in much of Conservative and Reform Judaism, and in some liberal wings of Protestant Christianity, God is said to be capable of acting in the world only through persuasion, and not by coercion. God makes Himself manifest in the world through inspiration and the creation of possibility, and not by miracles or violations of the laws of nature. God relinquishes his omnipotence, in order that humanity might have absolute free will. In this view, the problem of evil does not exist.

In Judaism the most popular works espousing this point are from Rabbi Harold Kushner; many of his works have also become popular with Christians as well.

The idea of a non-omnipotent God was developed by philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, in the theological system known as process theology.

In the Evangelical movement of the Protestant churches, Open Theism (also called Free Will Theism), similarly asserts that God acts under His own power, but is not omnipotent or omniscient.

Contemporary philosophy of religion

J. L. Mackie, in his now classic article "Evil and Omnipotence", argued that human freedom is consistent with human perfection, and that God should have opted for both. Mackie asserts that human misconduct is a contingent matter—we can choose to do good or evil, with both alternatives being possible. He then asks us to imagine a world in which everyone always chooses good and never chooses evil—a virtuous and sinless world. Finally, he notes that God could have chosen to bring about any possible world, from the one that is actual, to a world in which people choose more wickedly, to the good world Mackie just described. So why not go with the good world? The only reply can be that, in choosing to bring about that world, God would thereby deny humans their freedom. But that can't be true. For if it were, then God would have denied us our freedom by bringing about the actual world. Bringing about a world in which people make choices is not freedom-cancelling, and so God should have brought about a world in which people make better choices. This argument is the seed of contemporary discussions of the logical argument from evil, which aims to show that theism and evil are logically incompatible.

Alvin Plantinga, in a response that has also achieved 'classic' status, rebuts Mackie. Plantinga's celebrated "free will defense" argues that evil is consistent with God's existence, because there are some possible worlds that God cannot bring about. This seems curious enough, if we assume that God is omnipotent. Shouldn't he be able to bring about any possible world he wants? But Plantinga reminds us that there are always trivial limits on omnipotence—God can't make <math>2+2=5<math> or create a married bachelor. Plantinga's trick is stretching these trivial limits to very non-trivial results.

Step one: Plantinga proposes that there are logical truths—so-called "counterfactuals of freedom"—about our free choices in various possible situations, with one choice dictated for every situation. On Plantinga's example, where S is a situation in which Curley is free to take or refuse a bribe, it is either true that "If Curley were to be free in S, he would take the bribe" or "If Curley were to be free in S, he would refuse the bribe" (assume that exactly one can be true). These truths about what we would freely do in possible situations help make us what we are, and are timelessly and necessarily true—and so, crucially, out of God's hands. Consequently, if the first proposition is true (and Curley would take the bribe), then God cannot bring about the possible world in which Curley refuses the bribe. God can only bring about S and sadly watch Curley's freely chosen venality manifest itself, as timelessly reported by that unchangeable counterfactual of freedom.

Step two: Plantinga argues for the possibility of a person who will sin at least once, no matter what situation God puts him in. Such a person suffers from so-called "transworld depravity". Though he can choose to do good in each situation, though it is possible that he does good in each situation, it is nevertheless true that he will choose to sin, a sad fact reported by his counterfactuals of freedom. And God can do nothing to bring about the sinless possible worlds—that's up to the sinner, who will, as a matter of fact, choose otherwise.

We've arrived at the conclusion that perhaps even God cannot bring about Mackie's virtuous and sinless worlds. God may be omnipotent, but he can't change people's free decisions, and he can't change the fact that they will freely choose as they do. And if people will make nasty choices, then those possible worlds in which they choose good are beyond God's reach. Plantinga proposes that perhaps all persons suffer from transworld depravity, that perhaps the actual world, though not the best possible world, is the best one that God could bring about, if he is to respect the free choices of the creatures therein. Natural evil? Perhaps it's also the result of sinful actions—the actions of invisible, powerful moral agents like demons. And this scenario is one in which God's moral perfection is squared with having created a horrid world like our own.

(Here another problem arises, related to God's claim (in many religions) that, after the end of the world, a paradise will be created where evil is defeated. The whole argument that God in his omnipotence could not create the "virtuous sinless world" described above seems to be contradicted by his own claim to plan to do this very thing! Heaven is the promised paradise of infinite bounty that fully matches the criteria of this virtuous sinless world. If such a world is not possible, then God is lying about the promise of Heaven. If such a world is possible, and God plans to make one world that way, why wasn't our world also made this way?)

One recent, friendly response to Plantinga is from Daniel Howard-Snyder and John O'Leary-Hawthorne. They claim that, to show the compatibility of theism and evil, Plantinga needs to support the possibility of his sketched scenario—it mustn't be reasonable to doubt its possibility. And they claim that the possibility of all persons being transworld depraved is unsupported. After all, there is another prima facie possibility, that all persons are in fact transworld sanctified (and so would do no wrong). Both 'possibilities' seem equally possible, and since they rule each other out, only one of them can be possible. Thus it is reasonable to doubt the possibility of either, and it is reasonable to doubt that Plantinga's scenario is possible; so it is reasonable to doubt that God really is consistent with evil. The two critics take to repairing Plantinga's argument, by replacing the "it is possible that" propositions with similar "for all we reasonably believe, it is possible that" propositions. The conclusion is then not that theism and evil are compatible, but that, for all we reasonably believe, theism and evil are compatible. The compatibility is not proven, but the incompatibility isn't reasonable, either. Mackie is still rebutted.

Another, stronger challenge comes from Richard Gale. In Plantinga's scenario, God's decisions cause human behavior and the psychological makeup whence that behavior stems; consequently, Gale maintains, human freedom gets cancelled by God's decisions. Ironically, then, Plantinga's "free will defense" story is a story without human freedom. Now, as Gale notes, Plantinga's God can't change peoples' counterfactuals of freedom; the truth of these propositions is up to the relevant people. But, by Plantinga, God does decide which possible persons get actualized, knowing full well their counterfactuals of freedom; it's up to God who gets to exist and then do their stuff. Moreover, God crafts his creatures' psychological makeup, which in turn exercises significant influence over their decisions. This is freedom-cancelling, even if our psychology doesn't determine our decisions, for it makes God like a mad scientist who implants a test subject with new dispositions and preferences to make her more agreeable. And to decide who gets instantiated is to be a sufficient cause of what decisions get made, even if the persons themselves are sufficient causes in their own right. The result is that Plantinga's God is in charge of too much, robbing humans of their freedom. Or so Gale avers.

In his book The Problem of Pain the literary critic and popular theologian C. S. Lewis called pain "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world".

Yet another intriguing rebutal holds that there may not be any best possible worlds, i.e., given any possible world there is another possible world which is preferable. If we accept that our world is better than none we can't fault god for failing to create the best possible world, there is no such entity. As an analogy we might consider the following dilema: A magical genie appears and offers you the chance to improve the world, name any integer and the total world happiness (or whatever it is you think is good) will be increased by that amount. Clearly no matter what number you choose there was a better choice. If you choose to add n units of happiness n+1 would have been better. Yet surely you can't be said to be guilty of a moral fault for choosing some number. By analogy how can we say God is not benevolent simply because he chose some world when no matter what choice he made a better one was available.

Holocaust theology

Main article: Holocaust theology

In light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical theological views on God's goodness and actions in the world. How can people still have any faith after the Holocaust? There is a separate entry which discusses the theological responses that people have had in response to the Holocaust.

General problems with all theodicies

All theodicies in general suffer from the flaw of assuming that the God in question is in some way impotent in bringing about a given state of affairs. Any theodicy that the theist brings up implies that there is a limit to God's power (see for example Martin's treatment of the Free Will Theodicy in "Atheism : A Philosophical Justification", where he concludes that "[t]he idea of a God who does not know whether His moral decisions are correct is surely not one most theists hold and may even be incoherent").

Another argument that has been raised against theodicies is that, if a theodicy were true, it would completely nullify morality. If a theodicy were true, then all evil events, including human actions, can be somehow rationalized as permitted or effected by God, and therefore there can no longer be such a thing as "evil" values, even for a murderer (indeed, this is the basis of the moral argument from evil, by Dean Stretton [1] (

Hindu answers to the problem of evil

  • Hindu philosophers, especially those from the Vedanta school have also attempted to craft solutions to the problem of evil. The whole notions of karma and reincarnation were possible explanations. Shri Madhvacharya, with his beliefs of dualism, has crafted his own solutions to the problem of evil that persists in spite of an all-loving omnipotent supreme Being.

Against theodicy

The late Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder, wrote an unfinished essay ( entitled "Trinity Versus Theodicy: Hebraic Realism And The Temptation To Judge God" (1996). Yoder argues that "if God be God" then theodicy is an oxymoron and idolatry. As is evident from the subtitle, Yoder is not opposed to attempts to reconcile the existence of a God with the existence of evil; rather, he is against a particular approach to the problem. He does not "deny that there are ways in which forms of discourse in the mode of theodicy may have a function, subject to the discipline of a wider setting."

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Yoder's life and work would realize that he was deeply concerned and engaged with the problem of evil; specifically, the evil of violence and war and how we resist it. Yoder's "case [is] against garden variety 'theodicy' "--in particular, theodicy as a judgment or defense of God.

Yoder asks:

  • a) Where do you get the criteria by which you evaluate God? Why are the criteria you use the right ones?
  • b) Why [do] you think you are qualified for the business of accrediting Gods?
  • c) If you think you are qualified for that business, how does the adjudication proceed? [W]hat are the lexical rules?

Yoder's argument is against theodicy, strictly speaking. This is the narrow sense Zachary Braiterman ( mentions in (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought ( (1998). He writes (, "Theodicy is a familiar technical term, coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to mean 'the justification of God.' " In his book, Braiterman coins the term "antitheodicy" meaning "refusing to justify, explain, or accept" the relationship between "God (or some other form of ultimate reality), evil, and suffering."

Braiterman uses the term "in order to account for a particular religious sensibility, based (in part) on fragments selectively culled from classical Jewish texts, that dominates post-Holocaust Jewish thought." Braiterman asserts, "Although it often borders on blasphemy, antitheodicy does not constitute atheism; it might even express stubborn love that human persons have for God. After all, the author of a genuine antitheodic statement must believe that an actual relationship subsists between God and evil in order to reject it; and they must love God in order to be offended by that relationship."

Two of the Jewish post-Shoah thinkers that Braiterman cites as antitheodicists--Emil Fackenheim and Richard Rubinstein--are also cited by Yoder. Yoder describes their approach as "the Jewish complaint against God, dramatically updated (and philosophically unfolded) since Auschwitz ... The faithful under the pogrom proceed with their prayers, after denouncing JHWH/Adonai for what He has let happen." Yoder sees this as a valid form of discourse in the mode of theodicy but he claims it is "the opposite of theodicy."

Evidential arguments from evil

Evidential arguments from evil seek to show that the existence of evil provides evidence for God's nonexistence, rather than implying the logical impossibility of God. Philosophers arguing from this point of view are less interested in whether the existence God is logically compatible or incompatible with the existence of evil, often thinking that the arguments about this are inconclusive, with some saying that such "logical arguments" are dead. They focus instead on whether evil provides evidence for or against the existence of God. Their line of argument is: the existence of God may be logically compatible with the existence of evil, but the logical possibility of his existence does not mean that we are justified in believing that He does in fact exist. For such a belief to be justified, evidence is needed, and in the balance of evidence for and against the existence of God, the facts about evil weigh heavily on the negative side of the scales. The classic proponent of this line of argument is William Rowe.

External links

de:Theodizee fr:Théodicée fi:Teodikean ongelma nl:theodicee pl:Teodycea ru:Теодицея sv:Teodicéproblemet


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