The Problem of Evil, as most of us know, can be stated like this:

  1. God is the all-powerful and all-benevolent creator of the universe.
  2. Evil exists in that universe.
  3. If God is all-powerful, and yet evil exists, God must not be all-benevolent.
  4. If God is all-benevolent, and yet evil exists, God must not be all-powerful.
  5. So, the all-powerful and all-benevolent God does not exist.

The argument is sound provided that you accept its definition of God.

However, the definition depends on a conception of God that is akin to our conception of geometric shapes. For example, if a polygon has three angles, then it is a triangle. If it has some other number of angles, it is not. So too with the definition of God in the argument above: If a being is all-powerful and all-benevolent, then it is God. If the being lacks one or both of these characteristics, then it is not.

However, most theists conceive of God as a person rather than a geometric shape. The former, unlike the latter, can have characteristics that are apparent but not actual. Also, a person has many more than two identifying characteristics. For example, God, in addition to being all-powerful and all-benevolent, can be the creator of the universe, Heaven, and Hell; incorporeal and normally invisible; responsible for anomalous events; unitary or triune; able to incarnate himself; and the reason some people stop overdrinking, to name a few.

As for apparent vs. real characteristics, consider a nonce person we'll call "Greg," a thirty-year-old man who lives in a middle-class neighborhood with a low crime rate. Greg helps little old ladies across the street. People trust him to babysit their children, and he has never violated that trust. He has no criminal record. His neighbors praise him frequently for his cheerful willingness to help them whenever he can. In light of all this, people in his social universe credit him with consistent moral goodness.

That's because the latter people don't know that Greg is a serial killer who abducts people from a neighboring city, takes them to a secret sound-proof room beneath his kitchen floor, and uses the equipment there to process them into canned dog food, which he feeds to his dog. Greg finds his clandestine activity to be gratifying in a repugnant way.

Now imagine that Greg is found out, thanks to a brilliant detective on the local police force. The neighbors are shocked. The neighbors say that Greg is not the consistently good man that they thought he was. But the neighbors do not say that Greg does not exist. They might say that the good Greg they knew did not exist, but they would say so only in a metaphorical sense. They would know that, literally, Greg still exists because Greg is a person and, as such, can have can lack an apparent characteristic, possess most of his defining characteristics, and still be Greg.

If we conceive of God as a person, rather than some mathematical entity, then God can exist even if he lacks one of these two characteristics: a) being all-powerful, and b) being all-benevolent.

Indeed, I once knew someone who lost his children in a natural disaster. He credits God with the strength to carry on after that tragedy but does not believe that God is all-powerful. (Yes, this is real.)

As for a God who is all-powerful but not all-benevolent, such a being would constitute a good theistic explanation of many of the events we all read about in newspapers.

  • 3
    It can also lack both of those characteristics. Why do you think god has to have even one of them?
    – JonathanZ
    Jan 31 at 3:29
  • 8
    The argument is invalid even accepting its definition of God and existence of evil (which "evil as privation" theists reject) Specifically, steps 3 and 4 are invalid. Plenty of reasons are given why an all-benevolent and all-powerful God would allow some evil, including free will, "higher perfection", "best of possible worlds", etc. One may be dissatisfied with those, but their availability shows why simplistic arguments of this form fail. The concepts of "all-benevolent" and "all-powerful", in their vague naivete, are generally incapable of supporting any cogent arguments.
    – Conifold
    Jan 31 at 7:36
  • 3
    "The Problem of Evil, as most of us know..." << whenever I read a text that begins like this, I automatically tune out. I feel like the only purpose of "as most of us know" is to belittle the reader. Not everyone knows the same things that you do, and even when they're familiar with the concept, they might know it under another name. What is the purpose of "as most of us know" in this sentence?
    – Stef
    Jan 31 at 12:26
  • 1
    @Stef perhaps the purpose of "as most of us know" is to head off accusations of stating the obvious, which could be read as condescending. Without knowing what was in the OP's mind when they wrote that, why not give them the benefit of doubt?
    – Nobody
    Jan 31 at 15:30
  • If God were a person, then the standard arguments against omnipotence would immediately imply that God doesn't exist; this is why folks insist that God is not embodied or physical or etc.
    – Corbin
    Jan 31 at 19:15

10 Answers 10


You make a good point here. The most that one can conclude from this argument is that there cannot be a God who is both all-powerful and benevolent. That doesn't rule out a God who is not both all-powerful and benevolent.

The reason why your Craig is still Craig even if he turns out to be evil is that we know who and what Craig is independently of whether he is evil or not. When the truth is revealed, we still know that Craig is a human being (although some people would want to deny that).

If you have other reasons to believe in God - such as that God must have created the world - you are justified in continuing to believe in that God. You just have to recognize that your God is not both all-powerful and benevolent. That solution has not been very attractive to the Abrahamic religions.

The Abrahamic religions deal with this by recognizing the existence of another power, which is the source of evil - Satan. See Satan - Wikipedia. This is not an intellectually satisfying response.

Amongst the intellectual responses to this problem, the idea that evil is not a positive force, but a negative one - that evil consists in being deprived of good - is particularly interesting, because it removes to the need to posit a Satan as an embodiment of evil. This idea was first articulated by St. Augustine, but is still the focus of lively discussion. See Theories of Evil - Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Intellectual responses by Christians can be classified as 1) refutations of the argument, 2) mounting defences (counter-arguments), or 3) justifying a world that includes evil (theodicies). For details, see Problem of Evil - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Zoroastrianism takes a somewhat different approach -

It has a dualistic cosmology of good and evil within the framework of a monotheistic-style ontology; meaning that the religion's eschatology predicts the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Zoroastrians exalt an uncreated and benevolent deity of wisdom, commonly referred to as "Ahura Mazda", as the universe's supreme being; opposed to Ahura Mazda is "Angra Mainyu", who is personified as a destructive spirit and the adversary of all things good. Zoroastrianism - Wikipedia

From what I understand, this problem doesn't apply, or doesn't apply in the same way to non-Abrahamic religions.

  • 1
    Job and Jesus are characters in Judeo-Christian drama who contend with the problem of evil. In a way all characters are enmeshed in the drama of good and evil. But very few characters bring the conflict to the contemplation of God - The Ultimate Creator of the whole human drama. William James, a psychologist and student of religion, argues that the strong men of this world are as dry and brittle as match-sticks compared to figures who suffer due to evil and discover a spiritual remedy! Jesus seems to accept evil as inherent in human drama but advocates efforts to gain spiritual transcendence. Jan 31 at 17:09
  • I sometimes wonder why religions don't focus more on how to cope better with the world rather than dubious dogmas. That's the part that seems to cause more trouble than benefit.
    – Ludwig V
    Jan 31 at 19:09

There are infinitely many conceivable gods, with infinitely many conceivable sets of traits. There may, for example, be a god of dessert, who interacts with reality purely to make dessert tasty, and is indifferent towards anything else.

You can't consider and argue about all of their existences at the same thing. Instead, you must consider specific god claims, with associated traits.

Christianity* makes a god claim of an all-powerful and all-loving god who so loved the world, that he sent his only son to die for our sins, and who did other things said in the Bible. The problem of evil is a problem with that specific claim.

There may be other god claims to which it also applies, and further god claims to which it doesn't apply.

* One could potentially argue whether the Bible supports the all-powerful and all-loving claim, but there are certainly many Christians who are making that claim, so that's the claim we address. There may also be denominations in Christianity which don't make the same claim.

Should God be all-powerful and all-loving?

Putting limits on God's power (or love) may invalidate the problem of evil, but now you can't say everything is God's will (or it doesn't serve a greater good). That introduces uncertainty about what God is and isn't responsible for (or why), from where one might consider how you'd go about figuring out what God did and what they didn't do, and what they can or cannot do in future (e.g. can they give you eternal life). This wouldn't be a great position for someone who wants to hang on to their belief, because you might end up concluding that you have no good reason to believe God does anything at all, which is a very small step away from concluding that God doesn't exist at all.

Of course, merely asserting that God is all-powerful and all-loving doesn't make it so.

"A god" versus "God"

Note the difference between "a god" and "God". The former is like "a human being" and the latter is like "this specific human being" (typically implying that their existence is mutually exclusive with other gods, or even that they are the only possible god that could exist).

Christians call their god "God", and given the prevalence of Christianity in the western world, that is the only god we tend to consider. Islam (the second biggest religion in the world) is also monotheistic (God is the only deity). But there are also polytheistic religions that may have "gods", but not a "God".

  • You are correct to point out that the God I considered in my post was the Abrahamic monotheistic god, who is allegedly all-powerful and all-loving. I don't know of any polytheistic religions that have a Problem of Evil. I am aware of the difference between "god" and "God," which is why I used the capitalized version in my post. Feb 1 at 2:41

The five-step argument you cite at the start of your elaborate post was intended to show that an all-powerful and all-benevolent God could not exist. If you accepted it, you could still assume God existed by relaxing either or both of the requirements that God be all-powerful and all benevolent. So you can take the argument as addressing either God's existence or God's character. The argument is not watertight either way, since counter-arguments can be made to explain why an all-benevolent and all-powerful God might tolerate what we consider to be evil in the world.


This hits at the heart of why some people are religious. If you ask a believer why they believe in and pray to their God, they're likely to use some form of statement 1 as the answer.

So in order for their religious beliefs to be valid, statement 1 needs to be true. But then you continue the argument that shows that if evil exists, it contradicts statement 1.

As others have said, the contradiction means that God can't be both all-powerful and all-benevolent. But since this assumption is the foundation of their belief system, dropping any part of it causes the system to fall like a house of cards. It's not acceptable to convert it from a definition of God to a contingent description -- a different description of God is essentially a different religion (like the difference between monotheism and polytheism).

It's certainly possible to have religions that aren't based on this definition of God, just as we have non-Euclidean geometries that replace the parallel postulate. So it's not a definition of God in general (no one would argue that it describes the Greek and Roman gods, who often did mischievous or nasty things to humans, and each was a specialist rather than all-powerful), but it's part of the definition of the God of Judeo-Christian theology. So if you admit that statement 1 is not a fundamental truth, you're not really believing in this religion.

  • @JamesGrossmann It's basically an argument that those beliefs are inconsistent. So if you believe in that God, you're deluding yourself.
    – Barmar
    Feb 1 at 6:43
  • But true believers will find some way to rationalize it. Religion is immune to logical arguments.
    – Barmar
    Feb 1 at 6:44

We are in Philosophy.SE here, not in Religion.SE or Christianity.SE. So the best we can do is use what tools Philosophy offers and try to tackle the issue purely on a formal level.

In this case this means to give a definition for every term, translate them into the realm of logic, and accept whatever outcome.

Your five statements are very clear, well defined and do not require any definitions from other sources. They consist of the first two givens ("axioms" or definitions), and three steps ending in a contradiction. The logic instrument used is reductio ad absurdum or proof by contradiction: the argument is designed to show that all the axioms together cannot be true.

So, to repeat: your argument proves, by logic, that not all of these statements are true; at least one must be false:

  • God can do anything at all
  • God wants that everything that exists is good
  • Evil exists (equivalently: God has created Evil -or- Evil has somehow crept in and God can not get rid of it) and Evil is not good

(These are the same as the first few bullet points from your question, just slightly reformulated to be more rigorous or explicit or to use simpler terms.)

((Note that we use the term "exist" multiple times - this is a very complicated word whose meaning is by no means clear; but let's not go there now.))

The reductio ad absurdum proves that at least one of these statements is true:

  • God cannot do some things (i.e., remove Evil, or create an universe without Evil)
  • -or- God does not want to do good in all cases (i.e., God added Evil for nefarious reasons; or refuses to remove it although he could)
  • -or- Evil does not exist (or equivalently: we just don't "get it" and what we claim to be Evil is indeed not)

The argument does not say more, or less, from a philosophical point of view. It would need further axioms to deduce more.

From the standpoint of logic there is not much more to say here. There is simply not more fodder to work with. No further conclusion can be drawn without more context.

--- Logic / philosophy ends here, but people in the real world of course continue the argument anyways: ---

Anything further would be pure speculation. Obviously, if you define God to be all-powerful and benevolent, then assuming the first or second result would show that God does not exist (at least not matching the Christian definition).

You could still assume that the solution is the third "Evil does not exist". The typical argument from Christians I hear is that "God moves in mysterious ways", i.e. what seems like Evil to us is, in fact, not. So taking this "out" will avoid the conclusion that God does not exist.

But of course this would not allow you to conclude that God does exist - it simply invalidates the whole argument (by removing one of the premises) without any conclusion at all.

  • "Your five statements are very clear, well defined and do not require any definitions from other sources." -- on the contrary, several essential terms of the OP's argument are ambiguous. Most people have a general idea of what "all-powerful", "all-benevolent", and "evil" mean, but there are considerable variations that are material to the argument. One need only look at various common refutations of the problem of evil or of omnipotence paradoxes to see some of them. Jan 31 at 21:03

I think it is more about the character: many dictators have been worshiped in the past up to degree it may be possible to say that was a religion. They were very far from great. Humans simply assume at times that there is no truth other than just the power. The stronger is always right, and the almighty God is always right because of being almighty. Does not need to be friendly or helpful.

Christianity, however, does not particularly fits this easy to understand explanation. Where Jesus has been born, the works he did, how he died, all this catastrophically does not fit into the "God as a dictator" hypothesis. It should be more behind. What exactly, we do not know.

We also do not know where do the cosmic rays originate, why do we age, why all amino acids in proteins have L chiral form and what are the primary drivers of the ice ages. We even do not know if every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two prime numbers (Goldbach's Conjecture). There are lots of questions that absolutely have the answer yet that answer is unknown.

If a being is all-powerful and all-benevolent, then it is God. If the being lacks at least one these characteristics, then it is not. Surprisingly well said. Being all-powerful is not enough.


All-powerful is just a phrase! Any being with a lot of power can be described as all-powerful. e.g. Putin has been described as all-powerful, he's just a weak man. All-powerful does not mean unlimited power. Looking at the story of Jesus in the bible shows that He didn't have unlimited power, e.g. He couldn't work a miracle at one stage, He didn't cure all the lepers. I don't know about the other religions of Earth but I doubt that any claim that God has infinate power.

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You wrote the following statements:

  1. God is the all-powerful and all-benevolent creator of the universe.
  2. Evil exists in that universe.
  3. If God is all-powerful, and yet evil exists, God must not be all-benevolent.
  4. If God is all-benevolent, and yet evil exists, God must not be all-powerful.
  5. So, the all-powerful and all-benevolent God does not exist.

and claimed that these form a sound argument. But this claim is completely bogus! Since you are presumably looking for proper logical reasoning, rather than word-salads, just think slowly and carefully about definitions.. have you ever defined "all-powerful" and "all-benevolent"? And by whatever definitions you pick, are you certain that they make logical sense? If you have difficulty picking a definition of these terms, at least look through these possible options and observe that you cannot have your problem-of-evil cake and eat it too.

In particular, if you define "all-powerful" in any of the popular naive ways, you would end up with it being equivalent to "impossible", in which case of course there is no all-powerful God; you don't even need to talk about benevolence.

If you choose a logically meaningful definition of "all-powerful", then you would find that (3) and (4) are unjustified. If you wish to retain those, then beware that your definition of "all-powerful" is probably logically self-contradictory, and hence your conclusion (5) becomes vacuously true and completely useless.

  1. God is all powerful
  2. If God is all powerful, he must be able to beat anyone and anything
  3. Then God must be able to defeat himself.
  4. God cannot defeat himself, therefore he is not all powerful.

Do we want to entertain this kind of circular logical nonsense? IMHO, this is pretty much what the OP was getting at?

Do correct me if I am wrong! Or am I strawmanning this?

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The problem of evil and attributes of God are inherent in human psychology. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, describes himself as a godless Jew. Technically the God of the Jews and the Christians has all of attributes of the Creation that one can imagine and all of the attributes of the Creator that one cannot imagine! Freud maps all of this to the conscious ego of the psyche and to the Unconscious!

I think Freud actively contemplated the American motto Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness when he wrote his book Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud's structural model of the psyche includes only three elements: the ego, the id, and reality. In this model the ego becomes conscious of attributes that map to the otherwise unconscious id (biological inner drives) or external reality (the unknown mystery). The unconscious id drives the ego to strive to become happy and remain so in the world of human affairs. The Christians use other terms, heaven, the earth, the heavens and the earth, and this world, to conclude that suffering and evil arise in part due to too much concern for the affairs of this world (Satan is Prince of this world!).

So when the ego strives for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness it comes into conflict with forces from the id and external reality that cause suffering to the ego! In this book Freud states that God cannot be all-powerful and all-loving because God creates the evil, wickedness, and even innocent suffering of the biological ego!

So Freud - the godless Jew - describes a sadomasochistic source of cause as the unconscious source(s) of human drama! He concedes that Saint Francis could convert his intention to love all living creatures into a great shield against his own suffering ego! But Freud argues that the intention to love and its expression is not effective for the typical ego to deal with suffering in his descriptions of the sadomasochistic world of human drama!

Sigmund Freud made an argument that the desire for an all-loving and all-powerful God arises due to the infantile drive for the father's protection in an ultimately hostile world where the ego itself is ineffective during early life, infirmity, and old age.

Paying for psychoanalysis, according to Freud, is supposed to remedy some ways that people suffer or make others suffer in the context of social relationships. But psychoanalysis can only help the ego to sustain some transitory happiness in the present via the adjustment to social and natural reality. Love makes the ego happy and cooperative social work is necessary to oppose the hostile forces of nature. But the Jews and Christians and so many other human cultures incorporated those core values long before the godless Sigmund Freud arrived at his conclusions derived from psychoanalysis!

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