A Solution to the Christian Problem of Evil: It Doesn’t Exist

A natural problem arrises when you suppose the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God- how and why does evil exist? Harriet touched upon this in an earlier blog in which she breaks down the nuances of such an issue. I’m writing this blog as a response that proposes a surely controversial conclusion: evil doesn’t exist. I know this is an unpopular opinion. Racism, famine, the Holocaust- all of the great suffering imposed on the world surely must be evil. But, I’m here to tell you that they are not. Why? Because anything made by an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God must be good. So what are all of these miseries and sufferings then? They’re merely the absence of Good.

Let me explain further by bringing this idea back to its origin. The idea that evil doesn’t exist really stretches back to Plato. I’ll keep his argument short, but he essentially says that no one does wrong willingly because to do so would be illogical. The more good in the community the better it is for the individual, so the individual would never harm the community because he would never wrong himself. Moreover, as he points out in the Republic, it’s better to be a virtuous man that everyone thinks isn’t virtuous than the other way around. (If you want more details on that, read the Republic and/or watch my upcoming episodes on it. It’s an awesome book). So what is it do wrong then? It is to simply be wrong about what is good. (For more Plato content, check out the series Better Know Plato ft. Socrates the Philosophy dog in the podcasts/videos section).

His formulation that all human action is in pursuit of the Good led neoplatonist thinkers such as Plotinus and Augustine to make this conclusion explicit: evil is nothing and what we call evil is merely the absence of good. Certainly bad things happen, but “badness” is not a thing; it is a lack of proficiency which has within it a level of goodness. To put it simply, badness is just something failing to live up to what it ought to be. Something that did not have any good could not exist. Plotinus would ask you to imagine a plank of wood with a hole in it. The hole in the wood is not another substance, but merely a lack of wood. Another example, imagine a grumpy giraffe. It has deficiencies in its attitude, but can only exist because it still has goodness in his sight, his heart, his legs, and his life. If all the goodness of the giraffe were stripped away, the giraffe would cease to exist. So when someone does something “evil,” it is a deficiency of their self control and reason, but without goodness of a crafty mind and able body, that person couldn’t do anything at all.

So, I feel like we’ve covered the conclusion, but let’s get to the syllogisms that lead to it.

  1. God is Goodness
  2. God created everything
  3. Something cannot come from its opposite
  4. Everything God created must therefore be good
  5. Therefore, everything is good/ good is everything
  6. What is the inverse of that?
  7. Nothing is evil/ evil is nothing

I realize that a lot of you reading this are probably inclined to immediately shrug this argument off, but I’d ask you go through it and find where that logic breaks down (leave your thoughts in the comments).

In addition to positing that evil being nothing is the right answer to the problem of evil, I want to show you that it is the only solution. I’ll do this by addressing the other proposed theodicies in Harriet’s blog and evince that such answers, though more digestible, logically undercut the requisite premises of the Abrahamic God (Jewish, Muslim, and Christian).

First: Evil is a test of faith, God has a plan for everyone. 

This eliminates what the Abrahamic God must be: omniscient and omnipotent. Metaphysically, God’s omniscience cannot be constrained to space and time. Asserting that you know God’s plan and that’s why evil exists constrains His omniscience and omnipotents to space and time, thus negating them. Augustine likens thinking you know what God thinks as more absurd than an ant claiming it knows what a human thinks. To assert that evil is a test of faith and a part of God’s plan is to say you know what God is thinking. This is impossible and absurd.

Second: Suffering highlights what is good in the world / gives you a chance to be good. 

Such a claim limits the Goodness of God. As my Augustine professor once told me, “what type of Good needs bad to be Good?” Surely, it must be a weaker kind. Because, pure and perfect Goodness, that of God, would need nothing to amplify itself, lest it not be pure and Good.

Third: It is the issue of human free will.

Free will is, indeed, a source of “badness-” in the sense that it can cause us to make less good decisions. But, it cannot be the creation of evil. Either a.) God would need to have created it and thus created evil (such that even creating the potential for evil makes Him its prime mover), which we’ve seen He would not do if He’s omnibenevolent, or b.) human being are somehow able to create evil through their actions, thus overpowering God’s creation, making Him not omnipotent

Fourth: It is the devil’s work/ Satan/ Lucifer – the Archangel who was thrown out of heaven. 

At this point, you probably know where I’m gonna go with this. Its folly is the same as that of the creation of evil. God would’ve had to have created the devil etc and thus evil. So see the points above. Also, if any sort of angel could’ve fallen and created evil, it would mean He is not omnipotent.

Fifth: ‘The fall’ / original sin – The disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. 

This is very similar to the third proposition in terms of error. Such that it would also mean that Adam and Eve, humans, were able to change parts of God’s creation by introducing something which did not previously exist. This would make God not omnipotent. Moreover, when Adam and Eve do this, they have no concept of ethics, as the fruit they bite is from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

I want to finish by noting one final thing: the translation of evil into biblical texts. It’s interesting to note that the Ancient Greek word “κακός” (kakos) literally means intentional bad or ugliness, not necessarily evil. Likewise, the latin word “malum” means bad, as in without goodness, as well as evil. This is just something to consider, if not just a fun fact. But, the principle of evil being nothingness still holds the same.

So, what are we to make of this? Rejoice! You are good!

It also means that you are made up of the inherent Goodness requisite to make the world a better place, and thus obliged to do so. How would Plato, Plotinus, and Augustine say you should do that? By pursing the Form of the Good through reason. It is in your power to do good in this world.

Published by Noah McMillan

Lover of philosophy, antiquity, and political theory.

4 thoughts on “A Solution to the Christian Problem of Evil: It Doesn’t Exist

  1. I’m enjoying your blog — thanks for all the work and thought you and Aditya are putting into this. My reading of the masters is so long ago, and now I mostly read about their ideas through others. I appreciate your bringing me back to the original source. And I agree with you, ‘Evil,’ in the capitalized, static sense of this big noun, doesn’t exist. My only disagreement for now is at the end of your blog. I agree that we are obliged to find a way to express and reflect our inherent goodness in our actions and life in the world, but I disagree that the way to do this is through reason. Not sure what the original Greek word for reason is, but I know that more modern Western thought has tended to conflate this with a rational, intellectual, post-Enlightenment view of objective, scientific knowledge. I would argue that this is a dead-end. What’s needed is more heart, more soul, more connection to that which can’t be comprehended by intellect and reason alone. Perhaps this was part of the original intent and idea, but I think it’s often lived out today in secular ways that miss the boat. Fun to engage in this way and thanks again for this great blog.

    1. I would say that the Platonists would point out to you by saying that you used reason to come to that conclusion about heart and connection, thus being guided by it

  2. I meant to add to my last post that Reason alone — in the intellectual, disconnected from heart and soul variety — has certainly led to tons of Evil. We tend to use it to confirm our biases, like the elephant rider who comes up with all sorts of great reasons to choose the direction in which the elephant is heading….

    1. I would say that reason alone is not normatively biased. Our biases often, if not exclusively, are driven by an emotional or appetitive desire for a thing to be a certain way that it is not. Climate change deniers may be said to be using reason to justify their beliefs, but their bias that leads them astray is inherently unreasonable and driven by some sort of sentiment. As a Platonist, I would clarify that pure reason can in fact only be used when the rest of the soul (the emotional and appetitive) are in appropriate balance. If our appetites or emotions are unbalanced then they are able to use the capacities of reason to satiate themselves. For example, I’m the utmost novice, especially compared to you, when it comes to mindfulness. But, I always find myself able to make clearer, more reasonable decisions after, and I think it’s because it balances the soul accordingly, allowing each part to do its role and not interfere with the roles of the others. Or, to put it another way, the literal definition of the just would to Plato: such that each part knows its role and leaves the other two alone.

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