The Problem of Evil in Modern Philosophy

Calvin (1509-1564)

Calvin resolutely disregards human volition as a means of absolving God for evil’s existence, and thus rejects earlier mainstream theodicies. In Ockham, however, Calvin finds an agreeable response to the problem, and builds upon Ockham’s foundation – his conception of good. Calvin minces no words when describing the root of good:


problemThe will of God is the supreme rule of righteousness, so that everything which he wills must be held to be righteous by the mere fact of his willing it. Therefore, when it is asked why the Lord did so, we must answer, Because he pleased. But if you proceed farther to ask why he pleased, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, and nothing such can be found.[1]


Calvin’s lofty view of God excels his concept of good as a standard. God is Himself the standard, and as in Ockham, the problem of evil, at least as formally conceived disintegrates. A new problem, however, rises in its place – the nature of divine justice. Calvin anticipates this, offering,


First, they ask why God is offended with his creatures who have not provoked him by any previous offense; for to devote to destruction whomsoever he pleases, more resembles the caprice of a tyrant than the legal sentence of a judge; and, therefore, there is reason to expostulate with God, if at his mere pleasure men are, without any desert of their own, predestinated to eternal death. If at any time thoughts of this kind come into the minds of the pious, they will be sufficiently armed to repress them, by considering how sinful it is to insist on knowing the causes of the divine will, since it is itself, and justly ought to be, the cause of all that exists. For if his will has any cause, there must be something antecedent to it, and to which it is annexed; this it were impious to imagine.


For Calvin, not only is God the standard of good, but also that of order. He supplies a teleological grounding based in His volition and acting as causative of all things.  All things, then, work in accordance with His justice, and that justice imbues the cosmos with order much like paint encompasses the canvas and provides the implement for intelligibility of meaning and design in the resulting artwork.


Descartes (1596-1560)

Descartes follows Augustinian theory in two particular areas: (1) assertion of human volition, and (2) evil as a non-essence. But Descartes adds an important component to the discussion. To this point omnipotence was the attribute most commonly limited in efforts to construct a theodicy. Descartes focuses on this feature as well, but rather than limiting it he expands it to the degree that God can even perform contradictions if He so desires. This is related to the idea of contingency that Descartes supports, as Nussbaum explains,


For him, not only is it the case that causal laws could have been different, had God willed it so; more radically, the laws of mathematics and of logic themselves could have been different as well.[2]


Thus God could have chosen other permutations of organizing laws, but in accord with Anselm’s view of the perfection of God, Descartes recognizes that this world is the best possible, and that as God determines what laws will be, they then become necessary. Contingency, then, exists but with limits at the point where the contingent becomes the real. At this point the real becomes necessary. So while Descartes does utilize the free-will explanation in his theodicy, two additional ingredients are observable: (1) the possibility of contradiction due to superomnipotence, or the divine possession of power which can contradict without self-defeat, generates a course in which the problem of evil becomes a non sequitur, and (2) his concept of contingency which offers a teleological explanation for the presence of evil. It should be noted in this context that in addition to these specific theodical elements, Descartes also provides an intersection of philosophy and theology, as his theodicy is distinctly philosophical. Janowski observes that


Descartes’ prime concern is Certitude or Truth [emphasis mine], while the classical theodicies deal with the existence of moral evil…Although Descartes tried not to meddle with theological and moral issues, it is clear from his treatment of the good and the true – both of which, according to him, were established by God – that they are two aspects of the same problem.[3]


For Descartes epistemological consistency, grounded in reason, was central in his theodicy, thus expanding discussions of theodicy into the realm of epistemology.


Spinoza (1632-1677)

Spinoza adopts, as Nussbaum categorizes him, a primarily modal approach to theodicy, espousing causal determinism and advocating necessity rather than contingency. Whereas Spinoza acknowledges contingency in an epistemological sense, he categorically denies it in the natural sense. (Nussbaum, 2003) Spinoza’s affinity for necessity corresponds with his emphasis on plenitude (Lovejoy’s term) – the idea that all that can be must be. With a view toward a ‘greater good’ theodicy, Spinoza held that all that exists must do so of necessity. Evil exists in similar fashion to the Neoplatonic conception as privation rather than essence – on this point Spinoza agrees with Augustine. The point of departure for Spinoza is causation, whereas Augustine viewed evil as caused by wrongheaded choices, Spinoza perceives evil as that which is suffered due to external forces acting on the individual. Yet good and evil are not absolute, as he describes in The Ethics, they both emerge equally from the perfect nature of a (panentheistic) deity:


If all things follow from a necessity of the absolutely perfect nature of God, why are there so many imperfections in nature? Such, for instance, as things corrupt to the point of putridity, loathsome deformity, confusion, evil, sin, etc….the perfection of things is to be reckoned only from their own nature and power; things are not more or less perfect, according as they delight or offend the human senses, or according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.[4]


The elements of necessity and perfection are in view for Spinoza, and flowing from his panentheistic perspective of God – He does not make creative determinations but rather supports and sustains by way of omnipotence – Spinoza creates for himself tremendous latitude in defining of good. The principle of perfection when conjoined with necessity  yields varying degrees of perfection including evil as privation of higher degrees of the same. He says in this regard,


To those who ask why God did not so create all men, that they should be governed only by reason, I give no answer but this: because matter was not lacking to him for the creation of every degree of perfection from highest to lowest; or more strictly, because the laws of his nature are so vast, as to suffice for the production of everything conceivable by an infinite intelligence…[5]


Here is a form of greater-good theodicy which must of necessity include each degree of perfection, even to the negative extreme. Spinoza’s theodicy, due to its emphasis on plenitude, invites aesthetic critique rather than purely rational assessment, thus affording a point of intersection between philosophical critique and theological dogma.


Leibniz  (1646-1716)

For Leibniz, the problem of evil is a supreme inquiry. He seems particularly motivated to address the issue that a world containing evil seems a malfunction on the part of its creator if indeed that creator possesses perfection. Like Spinoza, Leibniz recognizes the principle of perfection as a reality, yet whereas for Spinoza the best possible world is a product of divine power, for Leibniz, it is a product of divine choice actuated in necessity. For both thinkers the actual world is the best possible one, thus while the path differs substantially the destination in this regard is the same. God as perfect is obligated to create the best possible world, He will to do so, and He in fact does so.

Leibniz’ theodicy also relies on plenitude, as demonstrated in part by his deployment of aesthetic illustration of the nature of evil as both necessary and as privation. He says,

. . . to say that the painter is the author of all that is real in the two paintings, without however being the author of what is lacking or the disproportion between the larger and the smaller painting. . . . In effect, what is lacking is nothing more than a simple result of an infallible consequence of that which is positive, without any need for a distinct author [of that which is lacking].[6]


In this case divine authorship is defended against the malfunction claim. Evil has a necessary role in what appears to be a less than ideal world, a role which Leibniz identifies as emerging in three manifestations: (1) metaphysical evil – the degeneration inherent in the limits of the substance(s) of which the world is made, (2) natural evil – the pain and suffering experienced in the world, and (3) moral evil – that which inevitably results in natural evil.[7] Evil, then, completes the picture and is the result of no malfunction at all.


Hume (1711-1776)

Leading up to Hume, theodicy grew to be an increasingly central issue not only in theological discussion but also in philosophical inquiry – for some (such as Leibniz) it was a primary stimulus. Hume’s empiricism brought no less emphasis on the topic but did, however, generate dramatically disparate conclusions. Countering in particular the teleological concept, Hume attacks theism mercilessly. While epistemology may be his primary battleground, the problem of evil attracts much of his attention. It is notable that for Hume arriving at a theodicy was not his ambition, rather he sought to obliterate traditional notions of God. Having already countered to his own satisfaction a priori arguments for God’s existence, Hume attacks what he believes to be the last bastion of grounding for belief in God – the teleological idea.

If able to demonstrate that God is indifferent to good and evil, He can be made irrelevant and even nonsensical. As a result any theistically based teleological idea would be moot. To accomplish this Hume relies on an ancient iteration of the problem – that of Epicurus.  He reminds theists that

Epicurus’s 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?[8]


In Hume’s analysis of Epicurus, a more formalized argument begins to take shape. Unless terminology is redefined (as it is in previous theodicies), there are only three possibilities: (1) God is not omnipotent, (2) God is not omnibenevolent, (3) evil does not exist.

Hume will not allow any redefinition of evil, as in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion[9] he lists a number of moral and natural evils which are painfully evident to all. In so doing he concludes against a cosmos initiated by either concern for its creatures or by divine volition, saying:


Were all living creatures incapable of pain, or were the world administered by particular volitions, evil never could have found access into the universe: and were animals endowed with a large stock of powers and faculties, beyond what strict necessity requires; or were the several springs and principles of the universe so accurately framed as to preserve always the just temperament and medium; there must have been very little ill in comparison of what we feel at present. What then shall we pronounce on this occasion?[10]



Once a priori ideas of inherent goodness are vanquished (theistic or otherwise) such goodness can only be derived from experience, and Hume has an easy time of dismissing that possibility:


But let us still assert, that as this goodness is not antecedently established, but must be inferred from the phenomena, there can be no grounds for such an inference, while there are so many ills in the universe, and while these ills might so easily have been remedied, as far as human understanding can be allowed to judge on such a subject.[11]


Having established the groundlessness of the idea of teleological goodness, Hume closes the issue with a resounding indictment derived from simple observation:


But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind Nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children![12]


As representative of Hume, these statements fasten theological conceptions of evil and notions of the character of God to theories of knowledge, and they additionally raise questions of the nature of good which leads further into ethical discussions. For Hume, theology and philosophy are too connected, and he wishes to extricate philosophical inquiry from the grips unverifiable religious notions. Insofar as this is his objective, Hume becomes perhaps the lead protagonist for theodicy. Any attempt at theodicy which does not at least consider the colossal issues he raises will be found deficient or partial at best.


Kant (1724-1804)

In contrast to Hume, Kant sought to extrapolate systematic order in the cosmos. Like Hume, his epistemological grounding necessitated certain conclusions – while Hume’s empiricism supplied an a priori opposition to the metaphysical, Kant’s structuralism furnished a means for explaining the existence of evil in a manner not fully incompatible with a theistic outlook.  For Kant radical evil is self inflicted on those who will corruptly. Kant’s metaphysical conception of radical evil relates directly to his deontological ethics. Connection can likewise be drawn from the basic issues of theodicy to moral duty in Kant, thus generating a point of intersection between metaphysics and ethics. If evil for Kant is such a pivotal issue, then how does he account for its presence?


We shall say, therefore, of the character (good or evil) distinguishing man from other possible rational beings, that it is innate in him. Yet in doing so we shall ever take the position that nature is not to bear the blame (if it is evil) or take the credit (if it is good), but that man himself is its author.[13]


Evil is not divinely inspired but rather is intrinsic within the person and inextricably connected to the utilization of free choice. Kant continues:


To have a good or an evil disposition as an inborn natural constitution does not here mean that it has not been acquired by the man who harbors it, that he is not author of it, but rather, that it has not been acquired in time (that he has always been good, or evil, from his youth up). The disposition, i.e., the ultimate subjective ground of the adoption of maxims, can be one only and applies universally to the whole use of freedom. Yet this disposition itself must have been adopted by free choice, for otherwise it could not be imputed.[14]

Whereas Kant attributes the existence of evil within human character to the (corrupt) deployment of free choice, he acknowledges three distinct degrees of evil: (1) frailty of human nature, (2) impurity of the human heart, and (3) wickedness of the human heart – the propensity toward evil. Evil is found to differing degree universally within human nature – so much so, in fact, that Kant says it is “woven into human nature”[15]. As such, to become free from evil is the “greatest prize”[16], and to fail to be such is man’s own fault. In deriving such conclusions Kant relies on two theodical components: (1) free will as source of origin and causation of evil, and (2) the principle of plenitude. In his representation of the latter, Kant reckons the end game as the establishment of an ethical commonwealth – the founding of a kingdom of God on earth. As free choice play an important role in this, evil is a necessity in this drama.



From a synthesis of historical views on the problem of evil from the presocratic through the modern era, two primary definitions emerge: one, elucidated primarily in medieval theology from a monotheistic vantage point, revolves around harmonizing the concurrent existences of God and evil; and the second, from presocratic and modern naturalistic grounding, centers on the question of whether the cosmos is teleological. Whether from aesthetic motivation or otherwise – the question of teleology persists.

The iteration of the problem from a monotheistic perspective is dependent upon three perfections attributed to God: omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence. If any one of the three fail, then God (as defined) cannot exist. The existence of evil seems to threaten at any time at least one of these perfections. The problem, then, as gleaned from historical thinkers could be formally structured as follows: [17]


Premise 1: If G is X then G is A (If God is existent then God is omniscient)

Premise 2: If G is X then G is B (If God is existent then God is omnipotent)

Premise 3: If G is X then G is C (If God is existent then God is omnibenevolent)

Premise 4: If D is X then G is not A (If evil is existent then God is not omniscient)

Premise 5: If D is X then G is not B (If evil is existent then God is not omnipotent)

Premise 6: If D is X then G is not C (If evil is existent then God is not omnibenevolent)

Premise 7: D is X (evil is existent)

Conclusion: G is not X (God is not existent)


Given the positive truth value of the premises, the conclusion necessarily follows. This obviously creates a very significant theological conundrum which can only be resolved if it can be shown that any one of the premises is false.

If Premise 1 is false, then omniscience is not prerequisite to the existence of God. God theoretically could possess omnipotence and omnibenevolence and yet lack omniscience, the lacking of which allows for the existence of evil without logically nullifying His existence. In this case, God is powerful enough to eliminate evil, and he is morally perfect enough to want it eliminated, but He does not have the knowledge either that it exists, or of how it should be eliminated. If Premise 2 is false, then God has the necessary knowledge and the desire to eliminate evil but lacks the power to do so. If Premise 3 is false, then God has both the knowledge and the power to eliminate evil but does not desire to do so. If Premises 4, 5, or 6 is false, then the existence of evil does not constitute a contradiction to one or more of the perfections asserted of God. If Premise 7 is false, then there is no problem at all, since evil is non-existent.

From a naturalistic perspective, and independent of theological considerations, the second permutation of the problem discusses the plausibility of good, order, and ultimately purpose within the cosmos despite apparent contradictions brought by suffering within nature, for example, and relies on the same basic logical structure. Such a problem could be formalized in the following manner:


Premise 1: If N is P then N is G (If nature is purposed then nature is good)

Premise 2: If N is P then N is O (If nature is purposed then nature is orderly)

Premise 3: If S is R then N is not G (If suffering is a reality then nature is not good)

Premise 4: If S is R then N is not O (If suffering is a reality then nature is not orderly)

Premise 5: S is R (suffering is a reality)

Conclusion: N is not P (nature is not purposed)


As evidenced from a historical overview and resultant definitions, the problem of the existence of evil has confounded theologian and philosopher alike and is not isolated exclusively within either category of thought. Insomuch as it is true that both disciplines must confront the issue, it seems that at least two considerations should be made.

First, a working definition of the problem from each standpoint (such as those here provided) should be perceived. Any problem to be resolved requires at least general agreement on the part of the participants regarding core definitions. And while I am not suggesting that the definitions offered here necessarily provide finality in this regard, I do suggest that these particular formulations, derived from the problem as historically iterated, provide a reduction of terms apt to facilitate comparative analysis of proposed solutions, rendering more readily visible presuppositions and other such factors which would significantly impact conclusions. In short, a definition extracted from a plurality of theorists addressing the problem over time will allow for broader and even interdisciplinary critique, thus deepening the analysis.

Second, as this kind of analysis takes place a reduced-term definition provides greater opportunity for interdisciplinary testing of ideas. Philosophical attempts at resolving the issue  – or reframing the issue so as not to require resolution – when held to the light (or darkness) of theology must meet challenges it might not otherwise wish to consider. The core premises of naturalistic philosophy may be examined in this context, and in light of such testing will either be shown to want further refinement or will be strengthened even further in its convictions. Likewise, theological efforts, when informed by naturalistic argument, must question its very basis of authority. Is it grounded properly? Is it hermeneutically sound? The testing which philosophical inquiry brings provides opportunity for heightened precision which might not be otherwise motivated. The informing of one discipline by the other, then, gives occasion for strengthening or dismissal of views as the case may demand.

With these two considerations in view, and in light of the historical inquiry and the problem’s ramifications for epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics, there may be perhaps no more fertile ground for interdisciplinary inquiry between philosophy and theology than the problem of evil.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge, trans., 3:23:2

[2] Charles Nussbaum, “Aesthetics and the Problem of Evil”, in Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No. 3, April 2003


[3] Zbigniew Janowski, Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude (Norwell, MA: Kluwer Academic Publishers,2000 ), 13

[4] Spinoza, The Ethics, Part I, Appendix

[5] Ibid.

[6] From Sämtliche Schriften und Briefe . (Darmstadt and Berlin: Berlin Academy, 1923), A6.3:151 as quoted in “Leibniz and the Problem of Evil”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

[7] Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 22

[8] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion: The Posthumous Essays on the Immortality of The Soul and Suicide, Richard Popkin, ed., (Hackett Publishing, 1980), 63

[9] Section 11, in particular

[10] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Section 11:8

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 11:9

[13] Immanuel Kant, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, Book 1, Section 15

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., Book 3, Section 85

[17] Formalizations and explanations adapted from Christopher Cone, Aesthetics as an Example of the Cross-Disciplinary Pervasiveness of the Problem of Evil, an unpublished paper

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