Thursday, August 20, 2015

Problem of Evil: Simplified, Rethought, and... Re-complicated.

Note: When I started writing this post, I had a very different conclusion than the one I figured out in the process of writing this post. I'll leave my process up for everyone to see as my mind is changed while I ponder the issue of the problem of evil by writing:

In this post, I hope to simplify the problem of evil and offer a simple, albeit depressing, solution. In layman's terms, the problem of evil is: "If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why does bad stuff happen?" I will be talking about the problem of evil in the context of Christianity and the Christian God for this post.

I have written on this subject before here--

The problem of evil takes its most potent form thusly:

1. God is omnipotent (all-powerful).
2. God is omnibenevolent (all-loving).
3. God is omniscient (all-knowing).
4. God has free will (God could have chosen not to create our universe).
5. In natural theology (the physical world), we see most people ending up in hell (eternal punishment).

I realize each of those points is debatable, so for now, we can treat each one as a moving part--for example, we might take the stance that God doesn't have free will, or that God has free will but wouldn't act in any way other than the way God does based on God's perfection. Another example would be hell--perhaps it isn't eternal, and souls either cease to exist or are moved to purgatory (kinda heaven) or heaven (heaven) at a later time, or perhaps most people actually go to heaven instead of hell.

To start with, lets treat 1-5 like cement and see where those assumptions take us.

If 1-5 are all true
Actually, this is impossible. If God were omnibenevolent and had free will, God would not have chosen to create the universe. It would be more loving to simply not create, given that the majority of people experience eternal punishment in hell.


 Wait... Hold on...
Actually, maybe it IS possible for 1-5 to all be true at the same time. I was planning to write something totally different, but perhaps I have figured something out:

My Solution to the Problem of Evil
The magnitude of heaven's good-ness for people could be at least 10 times greater than the magnitude of hell's bad-ness.

Under this model, God can be omnipotent, mostly benevolent, omniscient, and have free will.

Actually, now we need to examine the influence of free will in humans, especially regarding their part in choosing to accept salvation. We would need to wade through Calvinism, Molanism, and Arminianism to do this, as well as some complex philosophy of mind. What is the best of all possible worlds?

It is impossible to figure out what the best of all possible worlds would be--but can I at least think of one that would be better than the current world? I suppose that is (at least probably) beyond human comprehension?

OK, so for now I'm going to assume Molinism, which means that people DO have free will. So, God created the universe, gave humans free will, majority of people don't choose salvation, but heaven is so much better for the ones that are saved compared with the pain of hell that the net good-ness is still positive--and if the magnitude of heaven's good-ness is infinitely higher than the magnitude of hell's bad-ness, then the whole thing is a wash and hell is negligible?


It would still bother me that anyone was experiencing something bad for eternity, no matter how much better the good was that the minority of people were experiencing forever. But is that just the wrong way to think about this?

There are two ways to think about this.
1. Binary--each person counts as one person, and the good or bad they experience is equivalent across the board.
2. Quantitative--the magnitude of the happiness/suffering also matters.

Logically, it seems like the quantitative model makes more sense--it would be better to punch someone in the face so that someone else could get a million dollars than to not punch someone and not have someone else get a million dollars.

Then again, is there a point at which the degree of suffering outweighs any amount of happiness for someone else?

I'm really not conditioned to think about these kinds of things when eternal values are assigned--infinite time, or infinite pleasure, or infinite pain. That is hard to think about.

OK, if I remove my emotional attachment, then it is mathematically infinitely good to give a few people something that is infinitely better, in exchange for giving most people something that is bad, but infinitely less-so than the good is for the others.

If this is the case, then God can be omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and have free will (if humans also have free will)--and there are purely logic-based constraints upon universes in which there were no humans that chose (or didn't even have the opportunity to make a positive decision to accept salvation [people who never hear the gospel]) the option of not being saved.

But then again, is it more loving to give free will, if one of the options is eternal punishment? I suppose, again, if heaven is infinitely more good than hell is bad, mathematically, the people in hell are negligible?

I just can't get myself to agree that most people are negligible.


I must ponder further. Please comment if you have ideas!


  1. Even under the model where heaven is infinitely more good than hell is bad (allowable under your #2 quantitative model), I don't think you can retain omnibenevolence. Omni means all, and there is clearly no benevolence toward those in hell. So in that case, I think the most you can retain is partial benevolence.

  2. I think you are correct. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. So for a few 'chosen' or who chose to believe that infinite pleasure of hell cancels out all the billions of souls in hell?? That might be mathematically provable, but I call BS. How does your statement of a persons geography of birth determine an individuals religion/belief in your TedEx talk correlate to this statement?

    1. Thanks for commenting, Percy! Sorry it took me so long to respond.

      I hate the idea too. As a medical student, the thought of anyone spending eternity in hell causes me deep pain--it has made my physically sick. At points where I think that the evidence points towards Christianity, these thoughts make it very difficult for me to operate, so I try to re-analyze the facts to see if I'm wrong regarding hell. It would also be very difficult for me to have a relationship with a God that chose to create, knowing that most would choose hell, instead of choosing to just create nothing.

      I must also agree--the math works out--but I also call BS.

      The statement in the TEDx Talk (thanks for watching!) wouldn't correlate too much. I think what you're pointing out is that people don't have a 'real' choice--their fate is chosen by geographical chance. Is that correct?

      In this post I'm not claiming to have answers, I'm just wrestling with a very tough issue and letting people in on my thought process.

  4. Hi Joshua!

    I am flipping through your blog posts and thoroughly enjoying each one. I am currently an atheist, but was raised a young-world conservative Christian, and at some point I've been basically everything in between, so I feel I have some thoughts that might be useful for you.

    First, do we consider human life to have infinite value? It's a bit of a thought experiment. We could go back and forth on whether or not this view is supported by the Bible, but I think common Christian rhetoric supports it. The idea that people are valuable to the extent that they are good is very anti-Jesus. Perhaps we could say people are valuable to the extent that they are loved. Many people say that we are loved by God and so we are all equal, which implies an infinite supply of love from God to smooth over differences in love received from our fellow humans.

    So let's just assume that we are infinitely loved and so infinitely valuable. Existence in Heaven and Hell are infinitely long (if that's what we take 'eternal' to mean). So, if we're speaking in infinites, doesn't that cancel out any differences mathematically (I might be wrong, I was never great at math)? And so wouldn't hell be infinitely awful and heaven infinitely good and so completely cancel each other out?

    Alternatively, have you considered Christianity without a hell in which mentions of it refer to life without God or goodness? Many references to hell were metaphorical, which could be because they were used to explain a place no one had ever seen, but could also be because they were used to explain an abstract concept.

    Another quick thought experiment for you (because I am also thinking and developing as I'm writing), why is it not evil for God to create a literal Hell? Is it because God is just goodness personified and so anything He does is good inherently no matter the result? This would be totally circular reasoning though because it would be saying: everything God does is good because God is good because everything he does is good. But if we don't use this reasoning, how else can we explain goodness theologically AND how else can we excuse God's creation of hell?

    Whew! That's a lot. I'm done.