AskDefine | Define theodicy

Dictionary Definition

theodicy n : the branch of theology that defends God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil

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After French théodicée, from Greek θεός ‘god’ + δίκη ‘justice’.




  1. A justification of a deity, or the attributes of a deity, especially in regard to the existence of evil and suffering in the world; a work or discourse justifying the ways of God.
    • 2003: God was now nothing more than a distant cause of causes; what mattered was matter, and man acting in nature. The theodicy, the master-narrative, had become secularized. — Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason (Penguin 2004, p. 388)


Extensive Definition

Theodicy () (adjectival form theodicean) is a specific branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, i.e., the problem of evil.

Origin of the term

The term theodicy comes from the Greek (theós, "god") and (díkē, "justice"), meaning literally "the justice of God," although a more appropriate phrase may be "to justify God" or "the justification 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 ("Theodicic Essays on the Benevolence of God, the Free will of man, and the Origin of Evil"). The purpose of the essay was to show that the evil in the world does not conflict with the goodness of God, and that notwithstanding its many evils, the world is the best of all possible worlds.

The problem of evil

main article 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 sceptic Pierre Bayle (1647..1706) 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. 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.
The goal of theodicy is to show that there are convincing reasons why a just, compassionate and omnipotent being would permit debilitating suffering to flourish. But any method of inquiry that begins with a predetermined conclusion is not rational and scientific,as one point of view suggests. Some suggest that the goal of theodicy is not to determine the truth, but to convince skeptics by any means possible that a reasonably doubted proposition is, in fact, true.
Others can argue that theodicy is more logical in nature. They assert that it begins with a hypothesis, and then tests that hypothesis to see if it can be reconciled with experience and reason. These theodiceans 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. While theodicy cannot prove the existence of God, theodiceans assert that 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. Though one proponent of a theodicy may be convinced of its rigour, another person may find it logically weak. For this reason, theodicies tend to be controversial, even among theists.

The nature of God

Theodicy investigates the question of 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 governance 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 of which we have some understanding. 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 righteous plan, and therefore, though they may involve true evil in themselves, they are intended by God for morally justified purposes (which are not always apparent to humanity). Calvinists see the duality of intentions indicated in Genesis 50:15-20 as the exemplar of this paradigm. Compare Augustine, Enchridion [On Faith, Hope and Love], 26:100.
  • Open Theism asserts that God’s purpose in creation was for a genuine love relationship with humankind. For this to happen one must have the ability to reject God. If people could not freely choose sin then they could not freely choose to love Him or Her. God allows humans to make their own decisions such that He or She can have real interpersonal relationships. Because God does not cause this sin and because humankind is not fated to sin, God is not guilty of that sin.
  • "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 John of Tobolsk. Calvinism may be seen as a form of "modified Dualism" in the Augustinian tradition.

Examples of theodicy

Resolutions to the problem of evil generally entail one of the following:
  • What people consider evil or suffering is an illusion or unimportant.
  • Events thought to be evil are not really so (such as deaths by natural disaster).
  • 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.
  • A related posture holds that no theodicy is needed or even appropriate. God, if he exists, is so far superior to man, that he cannot be judged by man. Man's assumption that he can tell God what a benevolent and all-powerful god can or cannot do, is mere arrogance.
  • 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 giving people 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 humans would lack moral content.
  • 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.
  • Evil is propagated by the Devil in opposition to God.
  • 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 humanity 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 created perfect angels and humans with free will. Some of them began to sin and lost their perfection, which resulted in evil doing and death. For a while God will allow this to continue, so that it can be shown that his creations can not be happy while independent from God. 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 or falls ill, that is because they committed a sin that merits such punishment. (This is also known as the just world hypothesis.)
  • 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 the condition of lack of 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: Evil is caused by past bad deeds, either in one's current life or one's previous lives. It is only when this karmic chain of causation is broken that reincarnation ends. This explains why an infant may be born into misery, due to actions that may have been perpetrated in previous 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.
  • Dystheism is a theoretical position that claims that God simply is not entirely good himself. This resolves the problem of evil by acknowledging that an omnipotent all-benevolent God would not create a world in which there was evil, concluding that God, assuming he exists, is not all-benevolent.
  • Evolutionary theodicy, suggests that the plan that God has involves the elimination of all evil at the end of time, but that the means by which creation occurs always leads to the presence of evil in the interim. This theory is linked to the evolution of God himself as present in the cosmos.
  • Nontheists claim that statements about God are unimportant or meaningless. E.g., the book, "God is Not Great" by Christopher Hitchins.
  • Atheists resolve the apparent contradiction by rejecting the hypothesized existence of God (possibly for reasons other than the problem of evil). Some atheists think that the problem of evil can be used to prove that no gods exist by the method of reductio ad absurdum (proof by contradiction). This method does not prove the non-existence of all gods, rather it is an argument that if such a god exists then he is not both omnipotent and benevolent.
  • Agnostics believe that no answer to the question of religion will ever be found (or can not be discovered with the present level of human knowledge).
  • The contraction hypothesis holds that god has withdrawn himself so that creation could exist. That creation lacks full exposure to god's all good nature.

Analysis of these solutions

The following are detailed analyses of the above stated solutions.

God's divine plan is good — no theodicy is needed

No theodicy is needed or even appropriate. God is so far superior to humankind, that God cannot be judged by humankind. Humankind's assumption that we can tell God what a benevolent and all-powerful god can or cannot do, is mere arrogance.
For instance Immanuel Kant wrote in "Failure of All Theodicies" (as quoted in Making the Task of Theodicy Impossible?):
We can understand the necessary limits of our reflections on the subjects which are beyond our reach. This can easily be demonstrated and will put an end once and for all to the trial .
This idea also appears in Supposed Problem of Evil. The unstated assumption of humankind's ability to judge God, required by the problem of evil, must be proven before the problem of evil's conclusion can be accepted.
Orthodox Judaism generally subscribes to this explanation, based on (among other sources) the Book of Job.

The free will theodicy

Assume that both God and Man possess ultimate free will. This certainly entails the possibility of evil acts, making the free will theodicy plausible prima facie.
But must free will necessarily lead to evil? How did evil come to be in the first place? One explanation is that humans are corrupt at heart; but that would assume a will that is evil rather than free. Another explanation is that to be free we must act differently from God, and if God is morally perfect, our free actions must then be evil; but this confuses free action itself, with a way that we might recognize free action. A simpler explanation is that it may merely be a contingent fact that humans happen to choose evil by their exercise of freedom. And evil, having once arisen even by chance, plausibly led to more evil.
The free will theodicy argues that if God were to 'get involved' and start influencing human actions for the better, then human actions wouldn't be free any longer. Human freedom means that God cannot guarantee human perfection (see incompatible-properties arguments).
This requires that free will be a good in itself, greater than the evil it costs to allow such freedom. 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 in a deep sense like an assemblage of robots: not only incapable of evil, but incapable of moral choice in general. Though value would exist in such a world, the free moral agency possessed by God and actual humans is argued to be far greater. All the cruelty that we humans freely perform is indeed regrettable, but it is the price of freedom.
This argument can only explain evil traceable, however indirectly, to free will. It does not explain other phenomena which are often classified as "evil," but have nothing to do with human choices, or possibly the choices of other free beings: Earthquakes, floods, disease and the like. According to this branch of criticism, free will does not seem to account for all the evil we observe, but only certain evil such as that we humans freely create—the so-called 'moral evil'. Christianity may trace natural evil to the Fall of Man, the free choice of Adam and Eve to disobey God, dooming all humanity to live in an imperfect world.
Some instances of moral evil also themselves involve violations of free will—e.g., murder or rape, and these present a slightly more complex problem. For God to step in and deny the violator his freedom would also be to protect the victim's freedom. In such cases, whose free will is more valuable—which instance of coercion would be worse? It is morally implausible that, given that choice, the best thing to do is to respect a rapist's free choice to rape rather than the victim's free choice not to be raped. So, for moral evil involving coercion, the value of free will may not justify God's inaction. However, all or nearly all evil involves people abridging each other's freedoms. But the problem the theodicy addresses is not whether the rapist abridges another's freedom (they do), but whether God will abridge anyone's freedom. For God to intervene on either side would abridge freedom.
Compatibilists 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. Thus the question of exactly how God's intervention would undermine free moral agency is crucial. We need a reason to think that there are at least some, perhaps many, ways that God really couldn't override our choices without cancelling our freedom. The customary appeal is to a strong construal of free will.
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'. But there are other, softer kinds of coercion. Look to policemen and jailers. They don't directly 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 not in the same way. If God were to get involved as a divine policeman, making threats and enforcing them, then would we be 'robots'? Perhaps not, or at least not in the same way. 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 that God should hold back must be more refined: To just what extent could God (consistently) intervene, without abridging free will?
Other 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. On the other hand, it is not obvious that such a system could be constructed. If people cannot do harm, then they are not free moral agents, though they may be free agents in some very restricted sense. Most supporters of a free will theodicy would argue that it is moral free agency, not a vacuous freedom that has no moral consequences, which is essential to making us truly different from automata.
A similar proposal is that God could 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. An objection to this solution is that without observing the evil consequences of our actions we would not truly be making moral choices at all. In other words it is not only important for us to have freedom to choose our actions but also to have freedom with consequences. 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; and a world where all evil choices were grossly unattractive would likewise not leave us truly free moral agents.
An entirely different approach (not precisely a free will theodicy) is to claim that suffering is merely an appearance, similar to the Buddhist teaching that suffering is illusion (for example, see this summary on BeliefNet). 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 universe filled entirely with non-sentient beings who imitate human suffering but do not actually experience it. Admittedly, nothing prevents one from believing this is actually the case and it does appear to solve the dilemma. However, a theology which rests on a huge deception orchestrated by the supreme being (namely, the false appearance that our acts can do evil), is unattractive to those concerned with knowledge of the deity, which requires revelation and the veracity of god.

Free process theodicy

The scientist-theologian John Polkinghorne suggests that, in addition to free will, God has created the universe in such a way that it is, to a significant extent, allowed to make itself, and that such a world "is better than the puppet theatre of a Cosmic Tyrant." Combining free will with free process, which he sees as "two sides of the same coin," deals with the fact that some evil is not a direct consequence of human action, but it is a direct consequence of the working out of the same laws of physics, chemistry and biology which allow intelligent freewill beings to evolve. In common with many physicists such as Martin Rees and Paul Davies, Polkinghorne is very impressed by the fine-tuning of the Universe and suspects that there are very tight limits on the fundamental laws and constants of physics if intelligent life is to evolve anywhere in a universe.

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, first, 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, second, 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.
In Hyper-Calvinism, on the contrary, the parallel existence of the goodness of God, and evil, is not considered a paradox at all, and hence there is no acknowledgement of a theodicy within churches holding to such a theology. The idea here is that God is the active creator and instigator of all sin and evil, including the fall, using these as instruments to accomplish his plan. Satan, thus, is considered to have no power of his own but is merely God's puppet (citing e.g. the parallel Bible verses of 2 Samuel 24:1 and 1 Chronicles 21:1). An important part of Hyper-Calvinism is the belief in the absolute predestination of all things by God, i.e., nothing happens unless God actively makes something happen. One consequence of this view is that human beings, albeit separate entities from God, do not have a will separate from God. Now, it is generally agreed upon that a person can be held responsible only when that person made an active decision to commit perhaps a felony; Hyper-Calvinists, however, do not agree with that assertion, instead saying that while man has no free will, God will still hold that man responsible for whatever sins he commits because he (God) has decided to judge mankind by his laws.

Relativity of goodness — evil is not absolute

A less well known approach has been that of the mathematical logician William Hatcher in Computers, Logic and a Middle Way. He has written about the problem of evil from a relational logic point of view, arguing 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, rather, 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 (a member of the Baha'i Faith) 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 of 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. 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, an inconsistent triad.
In Deism, some theistic Unitarian Universalism, in much of Conservative and Reform Judaism, and in some non-traditional 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.
These theological strains maintain 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. Others maintain 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 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. Other works that promote 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 some Protestant churches, Open Theism (also called Free Will Theism), similarly asserts that God acts under His own power, but that future truly free acts do not yet exist and therefore cannot be known even to an omniscient God.

Contemporary philosophy of religion

J. L. Mackie influentially reformulated the problem of evil in his widely-anthologized 1955 article "Evil and Omnipotence." The chief novelty of Mackie's article is a strengthened critique of the claim that evil is a consequence of human free will. Mackie points out that, if the will is indeed free, then it is logically possible for someone to always freely choose the good. It is thus theoretically possible that everyone could always freely choose the good. And if such a free, virtuous and sinless world is possible, then it is within the power of an omnipotent and wholly good God to realize such a world. Thus, according to Mackie, the claim that God had to choose between a world of sinless robots or a world of sinful free agents is a false dilemma. Bringing about a world in which people always make good choices need not be freedom-cancelling, and so God should have brought about a world in which people freely make better choices. What is significant about Mackie's formulation of the problem of evil is that by his lights, it is not only unlikely for there to exist an all-good, all-powerful God and for evil to simultaneously exist—Mackie's argument claims to show that it is logically impossible for such to be the case. Thus if Mackie's argument is successful, it is not merely erroneous to believe that there is an all-good, all-powerful God and that there is evil—for Mackie, such belief is positively irrational.
In response to Mackie, Alvin Plantinga has presented an influential, strengthened version of the "free will defense." Plantinga argues that evil is consistent with God's existence, because there are some possibilities that even an omnipotent God cannot realize: e.g., God cannot make 2+2=5 or create a married bachelor.
Plantinga proposes that there are logical truths—"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." These truths about what we would freely do in possible situations are timelessly and necessarily true—and so 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 watch Curley's freely chosen venality manifest itself, as timelessly reported by that unchangeable counterfactual of freedom.
Further, Plantinga argues for the possibility of a condition which he calls "transworld depravity." Plantinga does not deny that there are possible worlds in which humans exist, and yet do no wrong. But Plantinga wants to argue that it's possible that God could not have brought such a world about due to transworld depravity. If a person P suffers from transworld depravity, than for that person there is some situation S that includes an act A for which P will have to make a moral choice. Plantinga thinks there possible worlds in which P chooses rightly with respect to A; but if P suffers from transworld depravity, S also has a curious feature: if S were actual (that is, if S happened not just in some possible world, but in the actual world) than P would go wrong with respect to A. What that means is that if God chose to actualize some world W where P did no wrong, then S would occur in the actual world and P would go wrong with respect to A. And then it would turn out that God didn't actualize W after all, because P does no moral wrong in W. Furthermore, Plantinga thinks that it is at least possible that all people suffer from transworld depravity. And if that is the case, then it will not be possible for him to bring about a world with moral good, but no moral evil. Plantinga's key conclusion is that it is possible that God could not have brought about Mackie's virtuous and sinless world—such a world might be beyond the abilities even of an all-powerful God. So Plantinga thinks that perhaps it is the case that although the actual world is not the best possible world, it is the best world that God could have brought about—because some of the possible worlds were ones beyond God's ability to actualize. Finally, Plantinga says that it may at least be possible that the natural evils in the world (floods, earthquakes and the like) are the result of malicious spirits. So Plantinga concludes that it is at least possible that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil.
(Here another problem arises, related to the claim made in many religions that a wholly good paradise will be created after the end of the world. If God cannot bring about a free, virtuous, and sinless world, then it would seem to follow that God cannot bring about heaven. On this point it is argued that, as free-will comes with the possibility of appreciation, and God wishes us to experience the free will he granted us, we must have something with which to compare paradise to, and so appreciate it.)
The force of Plantinga's solution is that its conclusion directly contradicts J.L. Mackie's central assertion: that it is logically impossible for there to be an all-good, all-powerful God, and for evil to exist. What is innovative about Plantinga's solution is that he is not arguing that it is true that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil—he is merely arguing that it is possibly true. Indeed, his argument does seem to be successful in showing the mere possibility that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil—most philosophers (theistic and atheistic alike) acknowledge he has solved the logical problem of evil (though obviously there do remain dissenting voices).
Daniel Howard-Snyder and John O'Leary-Hawthorne recently offered a friendly response to Plantinga. 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. Although, if God is given the two choices of "transworld depravity" or "transworld sactified," this would simply create a microcosm of the larger question. If Plantinga's God could create either world, being all good, would logically require the choice of "transword sanctified," as Mackie notes the less sinful world would be the required choice. As Plantinga requires that this be the most sinless world possible, any possibility of less sin must be chosen. Assuming "transworld sanctified" and "transworld depravity" are both choices, if "transworld sanctified" results in less sin, it must be chosen.
Richard Gale proposes another challenge. 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: God chooses who exists, and consequently what actions result from their exercise of free will. 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.
Richard Swinburne, in Is There a God?, writes that "a generous God [...] will seek to give us great responsibility for ourselves, each other, and the world, and thus a share in his own creative activity of determining what sort of world it is to be." He believes any realistic theodicy must be founded on a "free-will defense [that] claims that it is a great good that humans have a certain sort of free will which I shall call free and responsible choice [... N]ecessarily there will be the natural [not predetermined] possibility of moral evil." Humans' lives are more valuable when they have "genuine responsibility for other humans, and that involves the opportunity to benefit or harm them." To make harming people a logical choice at all, people "need already a certain depravity, in the sense of a system of desires for what they correctly believe to be evil. I need to want to overeat, get more than my share of money or power, indulge my sexual appetites even by deceiving my spouse or partner, want to see you hurt, if I am to have choice between good and evil. This depravity is itself an evil which is a necessary condition of a greater good. It makes possible a choice made seriously and deliberately, because made in the face of a genuine alternative." He argues that being hurt is also good: "Being allowed to suffer to make possible a great good [that is, that others are able to make important moral decisions] is a privilege, even if the privilege is forced upon you." God has the right to allow people to be hurt, as "God as the author of our being has [...] a certain authority over us [...and a] parental relationship." Thankfully one's suffering is limited by one's lifetime, as "there must be a limit to the amount of suffering which [God] has the right to allow a human being to suffer for the sake of the greater good." This avoids completely the problem of hell.
Swinburne argues that natural evil "gives humans knowledge (if they choose to seek it) of how to bring about such evils themselves. Observing you can catch some disease by the operation of natural processes gives me the power either to use those processes to give that disease to other people, or through negligence to allow others to catch it, or to take measures to prevent others from catching the disease." In this way "[i]t increases the range of significant choice [...] The actions which natural evil makes possible are ones which allow us to perform at our best and interact with our fellows at the deepest level."

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, i.e., 'bad' things happen to 'good' people because they have been reincarnated in a lesser place due to their misdeeds in previous incarnations (which they generally cannot remember).

Non-dual (Advaita) answers to the problem of evil

Non-dual mysticism answers the question of theodicy by maintaining that every seemingly separate person is in fact a thought, dream, or experience of God. God creates and becomes / experiences each creation, deliberately limiting itself to a specific identity in space and time to undergo a particular life experience. Therefore it is God who experiences every pain, suffers every indignity, dies every death, experiences the illusion of being each separate individual.

Dual (Dvaita) answers to the problem of evil

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.

The Immorality of Theodicies

An 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 affected 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
Volker Dittman argues that "the crucial point is, that when we accept the perfect solution for the POE, than there will be no evil, because every suffering could be justified. Worse: It would be impossible to act evil. I could torture and murder a young child, but this would be justified for a higher good (whatever the perfect solution is, it could be something else than free will). This would be the end of all moral, which clearly is absurd. The theist could not point to the ten commandments and claim that they are necessary, because one goal of morals – to prevent evil – would be granted no matter how I behave, if he is right with his perfect solution to the POE"

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. 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."
Yoder was deeply concerned and engaged with the problem of evil; specifically, the evil of violence and war and how to resist it. Yoder's "case [is] against garden variety 'theodicy'"—in particular, theodicy as a judgment or defense of God.
Yoder asks:
  • Where do you get the criteria by which you evaluate God? Why are the criteria you use the right ones?
  • Why [do] you think you are qualified for the business of accrediting Gods?
  • 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."
Voltaire's popular novel Candide mocked Leibnizian optimism through the fictional tale of a naive youth.

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 against this point of view often believe that deductively valid arguments based on assumptions of evil will not succeed or must rest on "dead" hypotheses. Such philosophers frequently argue that it is simply impossible for one to know for sure which things are evil because of man's limited foresight.
A Theist position may always postulate some unknown, distant good that cannot be seen, and this will always be possible since there will always theoretically be something that God can know that we cannot. For instance, although improbable, there could be some natural law in virtue of which any instance of suffering could cause some distant, unforeseeable good to occur. Hence, such philosophers 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.


An extension is cacodaemony:attempts to reconcile the supposed existence of good in the world with the assumption of an omnimalevolent omnipotent Demon. This was a philosophical exercise by Steven M. Cahn in his essay entitled "Cacodaemony" in which, through the weakness of the concept of cacodaemony, the weakness of theodicy is underlined.
John King-Farlow replied to this in his article Cacodaemony and Devilish Isomorphism, claiming that it is bizarre to claim that having 'proved' the existence of a devil means you've disproved the existence of God.

Theodicy in other contexts

The concept of theodicy had been used in the 19th century to extend to broader philosophical contexts than the existence of good and evil, as God was used as an analogy to other philosophical problems. As thinkers such as Georg WF Hegel tried to argue that there was an absolute truth that reconciled different contradictory truths, other philosophers were interested in the same idea from the perspective that Eclecticism was the way to organize and develop philosophical thought. Victor Cousin, for instance, believed that the Christian idea of God was very similar to the Platonic concept of "the Good," in that God represented the principle behind all other principles. Like the ideal of Good, Cousin also believed the ideal of Truth and of Beauty were analogous to the position of God, in that they were principles of principles. Using this way of framing the issue, Cousin stridently argued that different competing philosophical ideologies all had some claim on truth, as they all had arisen in defense of some truth. He however argued that there was a theodicy which united them, and that one should be free in quoting competing and sometimes contradictory ideologies in order to gain a greater understanding of truth through their reconciliation.
In this argument, Cousin frequently quotes philosophers who used the concept of theodicy to specifically reference to issues about God and evil. For instance:
"The intelligence of God is the region of eternal truths, and the ideas that depend upon them."
"It must not be said with the Scotists that eternal truths would subsist if there were no understanding, not even that of God. For in my opinion, it is the divine understanding that makes the reality of eternal truths" (Leibniz)


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