Christianity & the problem of evil (pt 1): The historical solutions

masaccio-expulsion-adam-eveNot too long ago I was participating in a discussion in which someone asked the famous question “Why is there evil in the world?” In all honesty I botched the answer in all kinds of ways, though I have plenty of thoughts about the question. The next few posts will serve to coalesce my thoughts.

The question of “How does a good God allow evil and suffering?” is probably the most enduring question for monotheists. I’ve even read that some eastern religions, such as Buddhism, which are largely atheistic, believe that the problem of evil is so vexing that the solution will have to come from a philosophy outside of their religion – namely the west. But truthfully, I don’t think the question to the problem of evil has a satisfying answer within the realm of theism, deism, or religion in general. That’s why I mostly dislike the question. Simply put, there’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing…

epicurious quoteBut none of that has kept people (including me) from trying. The technical term for dealing with this problem is “theodicy”, and numerous solutions have been proposed. However, historic Christian solutions have fallen into three major camps.

Solution by Universal Order – aka, Augustinian Theodicy

The short version of this solution is that the Abrahamic God created the cosmos as “very good”, and since God is omnipotent and benevolent, then evil is not part of creation. Ergo, “evil” is not a created thing, and God is therefore not responsible for its occurrence. Instead, evil is a lack of goodness.

Imagine it this way – in Augustinian thought, God is infinite, and is wholly and completely good. God is perfect in goodness and in ability to accomplish good. However, when creation is made, it cannot contain an infinite amount of God’s good. Therefore creation, being finite, is good, but it is not infinitely good. This lack of goodness, Augustine argues, no matter how small, is evil. Therefore, in the solution by universal order, evil has its root in finitude. Creatures, such as humans, are lacking some measure of God’s goodness, and are therefore tempted by vices which can diminish the other “good” qualities we do have, such as integrity, beauty, welfare, virtue, etc..

In the universal order, evil isn’t natural, but is an outworking of free will exercised by humanity to oppose God’s rule. Not only does free will produce the worst that selfishness has to offer, but inappropriate use earns humans punishment for their disobedience, which is commonly referred to as “The Fall” and caused by “Original Sin”.

The traditional Reformed and Neo-reformed views fit into this camp, along with their own variations.

Solution by Autonomous Freedom – aka Irenaean Theodicy

The short version of this solution is that the Abrahamic God created the cosmos as “very good”, but this didn’t mean “perfect”. Instead it meant “the best possible world God was able to create given the limitations of finitude.” Since this is the best possible world, but not a perfect world, there is room for improvement.

Irenaeus therefore proposed that creation is a two-stage process. The first stage was when God created. The second stage is when humans use their free will to develop towards perfection through their experience of suffering and evil. The world is therefore a school-room for making the human soul complete. The theologian John Hicks terms the world “a vale for soul-making”.

Unlike the Augustinian view, in which God was in no way responsible for the presence of evil in creation, in the Irenaean view God is responsible for making the world a perfect classroom in which genuine moral choices can be made. When humans experience the natural consequences of these choices (which have the potential to be “evil”), we learn how to be more moral and make better decisions. In this way the Image of God is developed in humans. In other words, evil IS part of God’s natural creation, but its function is to drive us closer to the likeness of God in our moral behaviors.

Greg Boyd’s Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy, broadly speaking, fits into this camp.

Solution by Dialectical Reasoning – aka Plotinian Theodicy

This is likely the most confusing of the three, since it can get into things like process theology and discussions of human ontology. However, the short version of this solution is that what we consider “evil” is really a lack of being able to call harmony into being. Evil is therefore “non-being”.

Perfection, within this view, is the ultimate harmony of all things. Take light and darkness, for instance. Harmony would not be combining them into some sort of low-light situation, since that wouldn’t respect the BEING of each. Instead, harmony means both light and darkness would exist, side-by-side, neither being destroyed or overwhelmed by the other. But this process of harmony requires infinitude. Our finite beings can’t accomplish it, much less wrap our minds around it. Simultaneous harmony is not possible for finite beings. This lack of finding harmony gives birth to non-being within us  – the idea that we won’t be able to bring the BEING of harmony to reality within us. And this potential of non-being is what we find as evil.

As humans struggle against non-being, their very being springs into existence. So, the more a person can find perfect harmony, the more that person can find their being. God’s goal in creation is to help creatures find their being, which requires complexity (sometimes called goodness) and harmony (sometimes called beauty). God’s infinitude harmonizes all things simultaneously , and is therefore worthy of being called perfectly good and beautiful. Evil is everything not harmonized in proper complexity.

Whitehead, Tillich, Moltmann, and Barth are all theologians who play with various methods of dialectical reasoning.

So What?

All of these solutions have merit, but they have significant problems, too. What strikes me most about these solutions is that they all arrive at the solution philosophically by trying to resolve the intent for creation from very paltry evidence. What if, instead, we look at the mechanisms of creation, which are comparatively obvious? Rather than trying to discern God’s intent for creation, what if we used tools like science to determine what is evident and let that light our way forward?

The question of evil is important because we want to make sense out of who we are and the world we live in. It’s not a silly question, but a question that we ask as we try to find our place in the world. In the next post, I’ll try to venture an answer to the question “Why Evil” in a way that respects both science and Christianity.


I’m thankful to both Henri Blocher and John Hick for their discussion and summary of the categories I’ve used in this post.

  • Blocher, Henri, Evil and the Cross (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994).
  • Hicks, John, Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).