The Problem with the Problem of Evil
Updated: Aug 18, 2022
There is a major problem with the ‘problem of evil,’ and once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The philosopher David Hume, if you recall, used the presence of evil in our world as an argument against the existence of God. (Of course, Hume was riffing off of Epicurus’s formulation of the problem of evil.) Gregg Allison summarizes Hume’s argument like this:
Is God 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? Then from where does evil come?
Hume says that a person can hold just two of these three affirmations, but not all three. If God is willing to stop evil, but he can’t, then he is not all powerful. If God is able to stop evil, but is not willing, then he is not good (he is malevolent). But if God is both willing and able to stop evil, then there would be no evil in our world. Since we know that evil does exist in our world, then this means God does not exist. Hume seems to suggest you can have evil or God, but not both.
But, as I said, there is a glaring flaw with this argument, and it has to do with the word “exist.” Yes, evil exists, but it does not exist like God exists. Evil exists derivatively or contingently. Evil has a parasitic existence. But God is neither derivative nor contingent. By definition, God cannot be. Fundamentally, by definition, God does not depend on anything for His existence. God does not exist like evil exists. Evil depends on its ability to corrupt what’s already there. That’s how evil ‘exists.’ A person has health, but then evil corrupts it. A person has life, but then evil takes it away. There is peace on earth, but then evil causes an earthquake. There is provision, but then evil causes famine. You get the idea. Evil exists as a parasite on the good. That’s the only way it can exist. In other words, dualism is a farce. Good and evil do not coexist forever, eternally; rather, evil is contingent on good and it came later.
God is not made up of any other parts, for that would make God derivative of those parts. That would make God dependent on things like atoms or ideas or feelings or whatever to compose Him. But God does not exist like that. God does not need space, time, or matter to help Him exist (but, space, time, and matter need God in order to exist!). He is not even contingent on good, because He Himself is the good! Unlike everything else, including evil, God does not draw His life from anything like a parasite or user. In fact, as the early Church Fathers often said, we can only know about God apophatically, or negatively. When it comes to describing God’s existence, we can only point to what God is not, rather than what He is, because He is not made up of anything we can point to. God doesn’t exist like a toilet plunger exists.
You can have God without evil, but you cannot have evil without God. Therefore, since evil exists derivatively, God must exist fundamentally. Or, as Norman Malcom put it, ‘necessary existence’ is a fundamental property of God. Hume’s ‘problem of evil’ breaks down, because it assumes the word ‘exist’ means the same thing for God as it does for evil. Evil exists one way (as a corruption), but God exists in a completely different way (as a necessity). Hume’s argument is guilty of the logical fallacy of equivocation and we should ‘hume-or’ it no more.