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Three Approaches to the Problem of Evil6 min read

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sufferingOne of the toughest and best challenges to the Christian faith is commonly called The Problem of Evil. Simply stated as as syllogism:

  1. If God created everything
  2. Then God created evil
  3. Therefore, God can not be all good because evil originated with Him

Of course, we could disagree with either of the premises (e.g. #2 since evil is not a created thing  but a privation, like dark in the absence of light, God did not created it) or the conclusion, we might merely ask a more practical question – who has the definitive or best answer to the question of “Where did evil originate?”

As I discussed in The Two Great Mysteries of the Bible, the problem of evil (and predestination/free-will) may be the two questions that have no complete logical answer, though still existing as a true paradox. If we accept that premise, then the best we can do is look for the best incomplete answer by comparing the answer from various world views.

With that ‘comparative’ model in mind, let me reiterate all three possible approaches.

1. The Logical-Definitive Approach

This approach is typified by the syllogism above – we examine each proposed solution to the problem in isolation, and with reason and logic. Here, we are looking for not only a logically possible answer, but also a probable answer. Of course, estimating the probability of an answer being right is full of speculation and assumptions, and depending on how we weigh or assumptions, we may come out with wildly differing probabilities, and in the end, no definitive or likely solutions. However, each of us must decide if one or more solutions recommend themselves to us as probable or even convincing, not just possible.

Christianity proposes, as I alluded above, one primary solution – that evil is a deprivation of good, not the presence of something created – it is like darkness that exists when light is not present – merely an absence. However, some skeptics (and believers) find this answer insufficient. So be it, at least Christianity has made an effort.

Other world views also have answers that can be evaluated in isolation, using reason to determine if their answers are logical and possible, if not probable. However, they may have even less satisfactory answers, and then where does that leave us?

If no one has a satisfactory answer to the problem, then we must move to the next approach.

2. The Comparative-Relative Approach

Here, we choose the best answer as the true. In a sense, this approach, like the next, is provisionary, in that if we come upon a better answer, we can always switch. However, it is unlike the following approach in that it has not given up on finding a good answer.

Let’s compare, for instance, some answers from various ideologies to the question “why does evil exist?”

Christianity – God’s creation, both angels and man, turned away from the Good and in doing so, brought evil into the creation. And God is actively working to remedy this through the gospel and the coming Kingdom. (i.e. ‘God mysteriously allowed it, but is fixing the problem.’)

Buddhism – Suffering is not real, it’s just our desire to avoid certain things, or have others – in a word, desire is the problem. Stop desiring, and in so doing, stop being a separate individual, and let go of your self in order to become one with the universe that just is. Accept it. (i.e. “It just is”)

Atheism – Evil exists just because that’s how the Universe works. There is no reason. We just have to work to create a better world (i.e. ‘I don’t know’)

So, the question becomes, which, if any of these, seems not only most logical, but meets with our intuitions about the Universe?

3. The Practical-Provisionary Approach

Actually, both Buddhism and Atheism take this approach – since they perhaps rightly see this question as unanswerable, they merely attempt to minimize suffering and eradicate evil through various schemes, including personal improvement, humane and compassionate action, and governmental structures.

I call this approach ‘Provisionary’ because if a better answer ever came up, perhaps we would adopt it. However, the practical approach admits that perhaps it is vain to seek answers to this question, and we should just admit that evil is real in some sense.

Even Christians could adopt this view – perhaps they don’t understand why God allowed the fall of mankind, but they do believe that preaching the Gospel and ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ are the right remedies – and getting people ‘saved’ to partake in the coming Kingdom where all suffering is gone. This approach is a ‘this world and the next’ approach (though some Christians pursue this in a next-world-only way).

Buddhists believe in a next world, or more specifically, a next life (reincarnation ad nauseum), but their this world approach is more about detachment than working to make a better world here. They do promise a better life next time as we free ourselves from our own bad karma, but that approach could take eons.

Christianity admits that a certain level of detachment from worldly expectations and desires is proper, but it still encourages a desire-led life stemming from a renewed heart and mind, rather than the purgation of desire.

Atheism, perhaps, is the most ‘practical’ in the sense that it only really asks the question of evil when attacking Christianity. It has no real interest in answering that question for itself, it just moves along expecting that we need to continue to evolve to a higher social and technological state.

Of course, this can never really answer the problem of death.


No matter what your world view is, you may decide to employ all three approaches to the problem of evil – you may feel you need and have a logical and definitive answer. But if you don’t (as I don’t), you can still adopt a Comparative approach, and commit to the best answer you see. And in all cases, we must all commit ourselves to practical approaches for reducing suffering, our own, and that of the world. Virtue and doing good are their own rewards.