One of the most challenging issues in the philosophy of religion is the problem of evil.  Put simply, the problem concerns the difficulty of reconciling the reality of evil—from immoral behaviors to diseases and natural disasters—with the existence of an all-powerful and perfectly good God.  If God is almighty, then he can prevent evil, and if God is morally perfect, then presumably he would wantto prevent it.  Yet evil exists—in massive doses, in fact.  On its face, then, the problem amounts to evidence against theism, at least as traditionally construed.  One way out would be to deny God is omnipotent, as Harold Kushner essentially does in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  Another route would be to surrender belief in God’s goodness.  But these approaches contradict the biblical portrait of God.  So, it seems, the theist is in a fix.

Since the ancient philosopher Epicurus first posed the evidential problem of evil, theists have proposed many ways of eluding its logic by contriving “theodicies”—explanations as to why God would permit sin and suffering in this world.  Two of the most well-worn among these are the “free will theodicy” and the “soul-making theodicy.”  Both of these aim to deny the premise that God would not want to allow evil.  Each explains God’s permission of evil in terms of some greater goods that God wanted to achieve in this world. 

According to the free will theodicy the greater goods God desired were the various goods that depend upon human freedom, such as genuine relationships and moral qualities.  But, of course, we have misused our freedom and, well, now things are a mess.  But the risk, so to speak, was worth it, or so say defenders of the free will theodicy.  According to the soul-making theodicy, the greater goods God aims to achieve by permitting evil is higher or “second-order” virtues which can only be displayed in response to evil.  For example, forgiveness requires sin to forgive, perseverance demands difficulty to overcome, and so on.  Such traits as forgiveness, perseverance, patience, compassion, mercy, etc. are good and beautiful virtues, and well worth the price of evil to achieve.  Or so say proponents of the soul-making theodicy.

I think both of these theodicies are helpful in dealing with the problem of evil.  But is either one preferable to or more helpful than the other?  This question has been occupying my mind a bit lately, as I will be giving a presentation on it at next week’s national meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society in Providence, Rhode Island, which will be held at the Rhode Island Convention Center.  (Once it is finished, I plan to post my paper on this blog.)  If you’ll be in the New England area from November 18-21, you might want to consider checking out this conference and hearing presentations by some leading lights in the world of Christian philosophy and theology.  It’s not too late to register.  And I also invite you to consider joining the EPS or its sister organization, the Evangelical Theological Society.  In each case, membership is inexpensive and includes a subscription to the society’s journal (Philosophia Christi or the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society).

7 Responses to “Two Approaches to the Problem of Evil”

  1. Marc


    Dr. Spiegel:

    I was excited to read that you’ll be presenting a paper at the EPS meeting next week. I hope and pray things go very well. (For some reason, the term “tour de force” comes to mind.) As the problem of evil has been circulating through my thoughts of late, I’m eager to read your paper.

    As has been previously observed by several Christian philosophers, and even, I think, implicitly recognized by some naturalists, a coherent formulation of the problem of evil presupposes a moral ontological framework – a substantial component of the metaethical domain. So, if the resources of naturalism don’t furnish the necessary metaphysical equipment to construct a moral ontological framework, as Hume inquired, whence then is evil? On naturalism, evil becomes an incoherent fabrication, illicitly appropriated from a theistic moral ontology. If these assertions are sound, naturalism seems unable to contend that evil renders God’s existence less probable, apparently leaving an attack on God’s goodness the only viable alternative. And it seems the theist is certainly not without reply to this endeavor, as she will likely invoke various theodicies and defenses, perhaps also appealing to the notion that objective values are grounded on God’s nature.

    Concerning your question whether one of the theodicies is preferable to or more helpful than the other, I originally was inclined to choose the free-will theodicy (or defense, as Plantinga more modestly calls it). And after momentarily considering choosing the soul-making theodicy, I feel myself being persuaded back to the free-will theodicy. Since I believe the primary reason God has endowed us with free will was so that it could be within our power to freely embrace salvation, I conclude that the free-will theodicy is preferable in this sense and other senses, such as accounting for moral evil. With respect to addressing natural evil, however, the soul-making theodicy seems superior.

    What are your thoughts?


    — Marc

  2. Chris


    The biggest problem with both arguments as presented by Jim is the words, “or so say”. The risk is worth it for free will or the better traits are worth it. Now, I would be more interested in an argument if rather than having intellectual proponents be able to say these things if you had an argument I could present to my wife who in the last 4 weeks lost her grandaddy to death (and the 3 years prior to Alzheimer’s) and her mother probably permanently to a coma (which by the way brings up another question for my wife, as in where is my mom). If you could give me something that she could say, that this is well worth it, then you might have something useful.

    Because honestly…..what’s the point. Are we trying to convince ourselves in our own little world, that we must be right so here are our feeble defenses to keep us from losing the faith? Are these the sort of arguments that are ever going to convince a non-believer to convert? Just imagine the absurdity. “Well, I know sometimes little girls get raped in this world, but don’t worry if we didn’t have that we wouldn’t have free will” Non-believer, “Oh, I never thought of it like that”.

    Sorry, but I’ve always found these debates to be nothing but foolishness, because in reality, I don’t have a good answer beyond, without evil it would be impossible to know God. That’s my answer. That’s what my wife and I cling to. We cling to an invisible God who often doesn’t speak to us and even when He does were never sure if its Him or our own imagination. We cling to a God that we don’t believe is going to answer our prayers for mom. We cling to a God who doesn’t seem to care about the salvation of Emily’s father or grandfather. We cling…..blindly….because there is nothing else. There is no straddling the fence in these times, we can cling or truly enter the oblivion. Without God there is nothing, and in this time, despite any evidence for Him, seemingly, we cling. That’s my foolish addition to the argument, and my hope is that this is the foolishness of the world that might have some wisdom hidden in it.

  3. Marc



    If you don’t mind, I’d like to offer a few (hopefully humble) remarks in response to your thoughts, which I believe provide an important insight to the discussion.

    When I approach the problem of evil and, indeed, of suffering, I don’t wish to profess or even suggest that my understanding of God’s methods is complete, or that, in advancing theological and philosophical defenses such as the above, all problems are attended to with perfect solutions. Not only might that express a degree of irreverence to God, in that my finite mind would be supposing to have apprehended the infinite depth and breadth of the divine mind, but it would undoubtedly be unrealistic and arrogant. I believe it’s imperative to assume a humble posture when engaging these matters. But, to my mind, that’s not to say that all of our endeavors are futile and woefully insufficient. As Galileo wrote, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

    To specifically respond to your thoughts, I think it’s important to differentiate between (what some have called) the “intellectual” problem of evil from the “emotional” problem of evil. (These labels are intended, I think, as an expedient, not necessarily as rigorously defined categories.) The project of Christian apologetics and, also, the efforts of Christian philosophers of religion are primarily concerned to address the intellectual problem of evil. And as these apologists and philosophers (usually) acknowledge, if we begin incorporating the arguments pertaining to the intellectual problem to address the emotional problem, there’s a potential that these arguments will appear insensitive, dispassionate, and affording little comfort, and even portraying those who offer them as detached and seemingly uncaring. I think these “intellectual” arguments may very well have their place and value with respect to addressing the emotional problem, but it’s important to bear in mind what the intellectual arguments are (and aren’t) designed for.

    I’m reminded of a story I once heard about Joni Eareckson Tada. After becoming paralyzed from a diving accident, she recounted some of the events which occurred during her early hospitalization. From what I recall of the story, she mentioned that several people visited her and, with the intention to bring consolation and assurance–to lift her spirits– offered various reasons and theodicies to account for why God had permitted this horrible tragedy to befall her. The person I heard tell this story noted that some of these theodicies, in fact, were rather philosophically sophisticated. But then he proceeded to note that Tada tended to regard these visitors in the manner that Job regarded his comforters during his time of extreme suffering. Their intentions were admirable and loving, but they were unfortunately supplying arguments to the intellectual problem of evil and totally neglecting the more prominent, more real, and more pressing emotional component.

    So, when Dr. Spiegel, apologists, and other Christian philosophers of religion develop and deploy theodicies and defenses to meet the problem of evil, their intentions are to address the intellectual aspect, perhaps (and often) defending theism in the face of attacks from atheists, while attempting to demonstrate that theism is a rational and defensible view to hold.

    I hope, Chris, that my comments haven’t been disrespectful or insensitive to what you shared above. If I’ve inadvertently written anything inappropriate, I hope you’ll forgive me and pardon my unseemliness.


    — Marc

  4. Chris



    No, your comments were not inappropriate, or even insensitive in any way. They were extremely well spoken and respectful and I thank you for that. I agree with most everything you have said.

    However, my point is what is the point. As you stated, “defending theism in the face of attacks from atheists”. Perhaps, some atheists could be converted if we had a good solution to the “problem of evil”, however since to my mind there doesn’t seem to be a logical solution, all I have ever seen in this debate is barbs thrown back and forth, with both sides so entrenched that there is no real hope in anything to be gained rather than a good intellectual argument. Sure intellectual arguments can be enjoyable, I know they sharpen my mind and give me a bit of a rush, but what’s the point. Your second suggestions is, “to demonstrate that theism is a rational and defensible view to hold.”

    I don’t know that I believe that theism is rational, personally, and I think that’s why there are so many problems to be solved. Think about what I am asked to believe. First there’s this guy named Jesus, somehow fully God and yet fully man. Second, there’s this thing called the Trinity where we’ve got 3 aspects (or whatever word you want to use here) of God and yet one God. Third, somehow God is sovereign and all-powerful, yet I bear full responsibility for my sin. Finally, there’s a good all-powerful God who seemingly sits back and allows evil.

    Despite all that craziness, because, take a step back and look at it, that’s all craziness up there, I believe. Why, because I’m an irrational fool for Christ. I cannot force my mind to to accept a plausible construct for any of those above things or why they may be true, and yet, I know them to be true. Although I overstate my faith. As I stated in my first reply, it is not so much that I know, as I cling to what I hope to be true. That’s all I have, a feeble faith that clings to something I hope to be true.

    Don’t get me wrong, I wish it all made sense. I wish there was an easy answer to the problem of evil that I could present to my wife and offer her comfort in her grief. However, as a Christian with a decent amount of study in theology, I cannot stand back and look at either argument presented to solve “the problem of evil” and say it sounds at all convincing. Part of that is, because when it comes down to it, we are not purely rational beings. We are emotional, and frankly, unless there is an argument that can address the emotional needs and aspect of the human nature, I’m not sure that the Christian will ever have an adequate answer to the problem of Evil. To try to divorce the emotional from the rational in an effort to construct an adequate argument is to deny our full humanity.

  5. Chris


    Sorry, I realize I equated theism with Christianity which isn’t quite an exact match, just happens to be the brand of theism I ascribe to. Hopefully this doesn’t muddle the waters too much.

  6. Jim Spiegel


    Marc and Chris,

    Interesting exchange, you guys. Marc, I was planning to respond with the very distinction you drew, between what has also been called the “philosophical” problem of evil and the “existential” problem. Chris, you seem to be taking the fideist’s position on this issue as well as other mysteries of the faith. While I do acknowledge much mystery in Christian theology, I do think some philosophical-theological headway can be made in all the areas you mention, if only to defang many critics who aim to undermine the rational consistency of our faith. Also, the “what’s the point?” department, its worth noting that many Christians’ converted to the faith in part due to good answers to their objections to the faith. Even some well-known apologists, such as C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell, would fall into this category. As one friend of mine once put it, some people are just one argument away from the kingdom. But I do understand how such discussions can seem very remote, tiresome, and even irrelevant when one is in the throes of a severe trial as your family is. I, too, have uttered the words “what’s the point?” many times in my life when overwhelmed by various pains. We continue to pray for your mother and the rest of your family, by the way.

    Finally, Marc, as I’ve nearly completed my paper my (main) conclusion is this. The free will and soul-making theodicies are incommensurable in many respects because they identify such different goods which might justify God’s permission of evil. For one thing, the former pertains more to a question of efficient causation–i.e. how it is that God could allow the possibility that humans might choose evil in the first place. In contrast, the latter addresses a telic causal question–i.e. what the ultimate purpose is (relative to humanity) of God’s allowance of evil. Both of these are important concerns, and each goes some way in providing a helpful response, I think.

  7. Scott


    Lewis’ conversion story may owe something to apologetics, but it was hardly a matter of clear intellectual decision for him–perhaps for none of us. (Scot McKnight recently made an interesting comparison between Anne Rice’s and Lewis’ conversion memoirs:

    In Win Corduan’s recent blog series (from last summer) on apologetics, he pointed out that “apologetics is not evangelism”; rather, the purpose of apologetics is to clear away intellectual barriers that are in the way of someone’s accepting the gospel. The point of doing apologetics is to answer the specific questions of specific persons. (

    I suspect that apologetics is more helpful to believers when they are struggling with doubt than it is for unbelievers or dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. Someone can certainly move from dyed-in-the-wool skepticism to faith, and apologetics can certainly play a part in that process–by altering someone’s view of Christian theism so that they see it as a possible (if only possible) option, intellectually, or by clearing away final intellectual barriers that keep an epistemically conscious person from becoming a full part of a church community.


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