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The problem of evil

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In the philosophy of religion, “the problem of evil” is the problem of reconciling the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent god.

The problem of evil arises from the supposition that a perfectly good God would not allow evil to exist in the world, and that an omniscient and omnipotent god should be able to arrange the world according to his intentions. Since evil manifestly exists, it would seem that a hypothetical god intends it to exist. Therefore such a god is not perfectly good; is not omniscient enough to foresee all evil and suffering, or is not omnipotent enough to arrange the world entirely as he intends so as to avoid evil and suffering. With the further premise that if a god exists, it must be perfectly good, omniscient, and omnipotent, one can conclude from the existence of evil that no god exists.

Epicurus is credited with first expounding upon this problem, and it is sometimes called the Epicurean paradox or the riddle of Epicurus—although the argument is not really a paradox or a riddle, but rather a reductio ad absurdum of the premises. Epicurus drew the conclusion that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of the gods.

The fifth century theologian St. Augustine of Hippo mounted one of the most pervasive defenses for the existence of God against the Epicurean paradox. He maintained that evil was only privatio boni, or the deprivation of good. An evil thing can only be referred to as a negative form of a good thing, such as dischord, injustice, and loss of life or liberty. If a being is not totally pure, evil will fill in any gaps in said being's purity. This is commonly called the Contrast Theodicy - that evil only exists as a "contrast" for good. However, the Contrast Theodicy relies on a metaphysical view of morality which few people, even theologians, agree with (i.e. that good and evil are not moral judgments). In “On Free Choice of the Will,” Augustine also argued that Epicurus had ignored the potential benefits of suffering in the world.

In Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l'homme et l'origine du mal, a well-known essay written in 1710, Leibniz introduced the term “theodicy” to describe the formal study of this subject. This term is also used for an explanation of why God permits evil to exist without it being a contradiction of his perfect goodness.

There exists a great number of variants of the problem of evil, including inductive variants, logical variants, evidential variants, soteriological variants, arguments from natural law, pain and pleasure, and so on. Many of these are discussed in the Wikipedia article on Theodicy.

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Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13