A History of the Problem of Evil - Overview

The seemingly unavoidable contradiction between the existence of a personal God and the reality of evil provides a crucial point of entry not only for (1) argument for and against the existence of God and (2) discussion of the nature and character of such a God; but also, as Neiman suggests, the problem of evil is itself an organizing principle for history of philosophy.1 Thus the theologian will not be the only interlocutor on the subject, but rather in fact the philosopher must also dedicate significant energies to understanding and ultimately dealing with the problem. Perhaps if Neiman is correct, the problem has even less to do with philosophy of religion than with philosophy itself, or then again, as I would suggest the problem of evil affords an example of the unbreakable bond between religion and philosophy and the resultant necessity of interdisciplinarity between the two.

Noting the significance, then, of the issue, this present discussion will (1) identify major theorists and their statements of the problem within context, and (2) give attention to various attempts at resolution also within a chronological context. I will neither offer critiques of these various attempts nor propose a theodicy (explanation or defense of why God permits evil), nor will I attempt to offer a comprehensive discussion of pertinent thinkers and their views. The focus here will be an introductory survey intended to provide a working and historically informed definition of the problem of evil from theological and philosophical vantage points.


Just as philosophical inquiry has a grand tradition of attempting paradox resolution, it is often these very same postulated resolutions that create further paradoxes. In Presocratic natural philosophy, for example, Parmenides, seeking to ground monism more appropriately proposed a theory of reality which suggested that reality was both motionless and limited, thus requiring his “cue-ball” kind of world—spherical and homogeneous.2 His cosmology begs questions though—questions such as how motion can be accounted for in a motionless reality and how pluralities which can be observed in appearance can be accounted for in a singular reality. While Parmenides certainly attempts to resolve these issues, the questions give rise to further evolution in thought—note the shift from monism to pluralism. Empedocles proposes an entire cosmology which would justify Parmenides’ approach but which would also deal with the paradox of appearances more effectively. To accomplish this feat, Empedocles develops a position that includes four elements (air, water, earth, and fire) and two significant forces (love and strife). With each advance and development, the cosmologies grow more and more complex and the questions grow more difficult.

This kind of dilemma is not unique to Presocratic natural philosophy, but also finds its way into later metaphysics. The problem of evil (both moral and natural) is one such issue which, when historically examined, exemplifies the predicament of creating more questions than answers. Can it be said that the problem of evil is a mere creation of philosophical inquiry, or is it a case study for paradox resolution within philosophical inquiry? How is Neiman (for example) justified in identifying evil (and its related problems) as the underlying issue in history of philosophy? An examination of the problem as defined and dealt with in historical context can go a long way in helping us to come to grips with the significance and structure of the problem itself, and can perhaps provide an impetus for resolution.

The Problem of Evil in Ancient Philosophy

Preliminary religious characterizations

Most conservative biblical scholars acknowledge the book of Job as one of the earliest biblical books, dating its content around 2000 BC, and contemporary to patriarchal times (i.e., Abraham, etc.). As such, Job provides a very early inquiry into the purpose of evil. Job 10:7 offers Job’s essential statement of the problem: “According to Thy knowledge I am indeed not guilty; yet there is no deliverance from Thy hand.” Job here questions God’s allowance of evil in his life despite his perceived innocence. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar all rebuke Job, presenting as a theodicy the idea that God possesses a kind of justice which would only allow evil for punishment of sin, and concludes that Job must have been stained by sin. Yet another perspective arises, that of Elihu, who argues that Surely, God will not act wickedly, and the Almighty will not pervert justice … . If He should determine to do so, if He should gather to Himself His spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together and man would return to dust” (34:12,14-15).

Elihu’s argument revolves around the character of God being unimpeachable and unquestionable. The problem of evil in the book of Job is not that evil exists, but rather that the presence of evil at times does not seem justified by circumstances. This perspective on the problem is represented regularly in later biblical texts such as Habakkuk3 (7th century BC) and Romans4 (1st century AD). Throughout the biblical record there is arguable univocality in favor of a theodicy.

Zoroastrianism is decidedly dualistic and monotheistic. In one particular strain Ahura Mazda (Ormuzd) is the benevolent deity in opposition to the evil Ahriman who possessed nearly equal power. Ormuzd, lacking the ability at present to fully eradicate evil, cannot be described as fully omnipotent, but will one day possess such capability, at which point evil will be eliminated. Thus history is outlined by the struggle against evil—a struggle which will at some point have a resolution which will in itself eliminate not only evil, but consequently any paradoxes associated with the existence of evil.

The Qur’an presents Allah as responsible for both good and evil, doing what he wishes (Qur’an 3:40) even to the point of testing by instrument of both good and evil (Qur’an 21:35), and thus the Qur’an does not concern itself with resolution. In fact, there has been little systematic emphasis on theodicy within Islam. Later traditions do point to the need for evil as a kind of resistive complement to the moral.5

While the Judeo-Christian, Zoroastrian, and Islamic bases are more univocal in their responses—owing to a primarily monotheistic starting point—polytheistic, pantheistic, and non-theistic traditions place lesser emphasis on the need for resolution to the problem of evil, as they essentially do not hold to the existence of the kind of deity whose existence alongside that of evil that would create a significant paradox. Yet they all must deal with the existence and origin of suffering and evil in at least some regard, and most of them do in various degree.

Hindu tradition provides diversity in addressing the issue. At least three particular varieties of description can be identified: (1) that of the Vedas, which present an ongoing dualistic (good vs. evil) conflagration, (2) that of the pantheistic literature (Upanishads, etc.), which relates evil to the cosmic cycle in relation to karma, and (3) that of the Epics and Puranas, which describe a kind of anthropomorphic theism in which the gods are responsible for both good and evil. Rem Edwards suggests that Eastern religions (including both Hinduism and Buddhism) fully develop the idea that evil originates in sheer finitude and fragmentariness of perspective and in the desire for fragmentary goals and objects … and see evil as originating to some extent in immorality, for the sufferings of this world are partly if not entirely the working out of one’s Karma.6

While not tendering a systematic theodicy—particular in the matter of the origin of evil—Hinduism does offer a means of dealing with the existence of evil and (at least) minimizing its effect: namely, the eternality of the soul provides a setting (through a sequence of births and temporal existence) whereby one can learn to avoid ignorance and associated actions which afford negative karmic results—including suffering and evil.

Not unlike Hindu explanations, the Buddhist approach to evil and suffering is largely characterized by the relationship of evil to karma. Buddhism posits the Four Noble Truths,7 in which suffering can be limited and even eliminated by the right kinds of thought and action. However, a key distinguishing characteristic of Buddhism is its rejection of the existence of an omnibenevolent (or any other) deity, with partial justification in the asserted paradox of evil, as presented in the following verses from the 13th century Bhuridatta Jataka8:

If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be
the Lord
Why does he order such
And not create concord?
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be
the Lord
Why prevail deceit, lies and
And he such inequity and injustice
If the creator of the world entire
They call God, of every being be
the Lord
Then an evil master is he, (O
Knowing what’s right did let
wrong prevail!

Bearing a marked resemblance to Epicurus’ riddle, these verses illustrate an aspect of the grounding for Buddhist rejection of theism. There is, within Buddhist tradition, no need for a theologically driven theodicy, yet the paradox of suffering still exists without explanation.

(Tomorrow: Overview, part 2)


1Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 7.

2 W.K.C. Guthrie, A History of Greek Philosophy Vol. II: The Presocratic tradition from Parmenides to Democritus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 34-46.

3 Habakkuk questions God directly as to how He can tolerate sinfulness (the presence of evil) without bringing about immediate judgment, and then later how God can use the wicked as instruments of judgment against those who are seemingly far less wicked.

4 Particularly in chapter 9, perhaps anticipating and offering resolution to Epicurus’ riddle.

5 Mian Mohammed Sharif, A History of Muslim Philosophy (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1966), 1658.

6 Rem B. Edwards, Reason and Religion: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972), 28.

7 (1) the existence of impermanence, (2) the cause of suffering is craving (3) cessation of suffering comes by cessation of craving, and (4) the means is the middle way, or eightfold path.

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