The usual (Christian) justification for suffering/evil in the world created by a benevolent God is freedom of the will. However, the more interesting question is not about the source of evil (which the free will may very well be) but why God chose to create the world such as it is. Why not create a world with freedom of the will, but without suffering? Even assuming that God is bound by logic such combination doesn't seem to be logically impossible: creatures certainly can do good of their own free will. There are two alternatives.

1) God is powerful enough for all practical intents and purposes, enough to be called God, but not omnipotent. He created only the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz). This position is perhaps the most defensible philosophically, it also avoids logical problems with creation of unliftable stones, etc., but it does diminish deity's status and invites unpleasant questions like what limits God (logic only, inert matter, outer chaos, other beings), is there someone/thing more powerful, etc.

Interestingly enough, the original Christian theodicy wasn't free will. St.Augustine says poetically "the canvas of creation requires both the black and the white paint". "Requires" here can be interpreted differently, modern interpretation is to explain the black by the "just punishment" for the original sin, which brings us to Adam and Eve, and back to the free will. But if God is still omnipotent and hence omniscient creating creatures he knew would sin, and then punishing them for it is hardly an improvement.

2) However, Augustine can be read more straightforwardly. Evil is "required" for the perfection of the world just like black paint is required for the perfection of a painting (evil can be interpreted as lack of good rather than something onto itself but that is beside the point). God is immoral, and he is beyond our conception of morality, his notion of perfection is his own. This is much bolder, and similar to Plotinus's position on the existence of the One, the One can not exist because it is "prior to all existence". But it does evoke the unpleasant taste of "ends justify the means". It is one thing to use "God is beyond our logic and comprehension" to get rid of unliftable stones, it is quite another to convince people to worship an immoral perfectionist.

Formally, there is another logical possibility of asserting both morality and omnipotence, but defending the morality of creating a world full of suffering, for a higher purpose perhaps. For example, the suffering only appears bad to us, not to an absolute being in its wisdom. But this simply redefines morality and is only different in phraseology from the Augustine's position. The question is asked in human terms and has to be answered in kind. One is free to argue that God is beyond human logic and/or morality, but it still leaves him immoral as commonly understood.

There does not appear to be a way to square this circle, one has to accept Leibniz's or Augustine's alternative (or both) and deal with the downsides. Option 2) looks more consistent, but it is rarely embraced, at least not openly. Perhaps, for "public relations" reasons it is more attractive to dismiss the question with something like "this is beyond us" or change the subject to the free will.

What are the modern theological positions on the morality/omnipotence in catholisism, protestantism, etc.? Is the question relevant to other religions?

EDIT: I am not sure that it came through but by immoral I did not mean morally deficient or evil. Rather at the God's plane of being morality becomes meaningless, like tastes or smells are meaningless when applied to elementary particles.

  • 2
    I've been trying to write an answer to this, but I'm not sure I can. First, this probably belongs on the Christianity StackExchange. Second, my intended answer ultimately leads to a simple question of the origin of evil. Because if God is holy, he is without evil, and evil is to go against the will of God. Yet God's goal seems to include us choosing him, which requires evil. If going against God's will is evil and yet God chooses to allow it, we have a problem, unless reality is such that all things including God support opposite positions (which logic and physics seem to support).
    – Magus
    Sep 30, 2014 at 18:48
  • 3
    @Magus I don't think the dilemma is unique to Christianity, and much of it is about semantics and logic in the conception of God, not theology per se. I also don't see why us choosing God requires evil, he knew humans will do evil when he created them, instead he could create creatures with free will that would freely choose to abide by his will. Isn't God "supporting opposite positions" still immoral (maybe I misunderstand), or do you mean that he is bound to do so by his "nature"?
    – Conifold
    Sep 30, 2014 at 20:26
  • 6
    In order to choose God, you have to be able to not choose God. To not choose God is to reject God's will. Rejecting God's will is evil. If God allows this, either nature must be such that any position must have a negative, or God must be immoral or inconsistent. This is not an answer, but an extension of your question.
    – Magus
    Sep 30, 2014 at 20:39
  • 3
    @Magus Or perhaps even God can not foresee truly free choices, but wills creatures to have them for their intrinsic value. But either way is a version of Leibniz's limitation on omnipotence. Does this mean that the alternative is accepted and resolved in favor of preserving morality?
    – Conifold
    Sep 30, 2014 at 22:16
  • 3
    Incidentally, there seems to be a problem in your understanding of Augustine and evil. For Augustine, evil properly speaking does not exist in things, because evil is absence (flawed absence). So then he cannot possibly mean that God paints lines of evil in. Rather, he could mean that leaving space for evil is automatic in leaving spaces between what is made [i.e., freedom]
    – virmaior
    Oct 2, 2014 at 10:26

6 Answers 6


I don't think this is an answer, but its a long series of comments. TLDR; there are many more considerations to the problem of evil than you seem to address.

You've missed a key element of Leibniz's theodicy, and in a way that seems to grossly distort his thought. God creates the best of all possible worlds, yes, but this is not to say that there is some existing catalogue of possible worlds from which God chose the best one. Such an account doesn't really obviate the problem of evil; it simply denies that God is omnipotent (since he---apparently---couldn't create world without evil). Leibniz's actual view rely on a certain form of teleology: the best possible world is a world that contains suffering because (for whatever reason) it allows for a more full expression of good than would be possible in a world in which there is no suffering (thus, for example, his Discourse on Metaphysics §3). This comes quite close to what you outline as the first interpretation of Augustine's view, and is actually quite a classical argument traceable back to at least Plato and---possibly, depending on how one understands him---Heraclitus.

Incidentally, Augustinian theodicy (whether or not this qualifies as the original Christian theodicy---and I'd hesitate to assert that!) certainly depends on freedom of the will. For freedom of the will is what allows man to withdraw from God and so to create the possibility of evil. Whatever you may think of the notion of evil as the privation of good, it seems irresponsible to dismiss this view out of hand, for it ties back directly to the heart of the question: is the existence of evil (which very few deny) contrary to the existence of God? If evil is created by some means that God (for whatever reason) places beyond his control, can he be blamed for it? I don't mean to rhetorically suggest that the answer to this question is "no"; it cannot be denied, however, that it is a question that deserves consideration---for if God is blameless in the existence of evil, then no amount of evil would seem to contradict the existence of God.

Scholastic Christian thought has tended to argue that one can regard God as not being "good" in our sense without thereby asserting that God is evil, immoral, or does anything other than what is good. God's goodness is taken to be not a different goodness from our own, but more perfect, and so occasionally manifesting itself in forms that seem to us evil. God can appear to be immoral, according to human standards, but this is due to our finite inability to grasp the infinite goodness at work. This is why Aquinas and other's speak of humans as participating in the goodness of God, albeit to greater and lesser degrees of perfection; no one can attain the goodness of God, but one can approximate it. In this sense, morality isn't strictly redefined, since the same good is there for God as for humans, it is just that God is fully able to realise this good, while human beings are not.

There may be something you find unpalatable in such answers, but surely that is not sufficient to reject an argument?

Another way, perhaps with some similarities and overlap, can be found, for example, in the Bereshith Rabbah:

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying, 'Let him be created' whilst others urged, 'Let him not be created' Thus it is written, Love and Truth fought together. Righteousness and Peace combated each other (Ps. LXXXV, 11): Love said, 'Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love'; Truth said, 'Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood'; Righteousness said, 'Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds ; Peace said, 'Let him not be created, because he is full of strife' What did the Lord do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. Said the ministering angels before the Holy One, blessed be He, 'Sovereign of the Universe! Why dost Thou despise Thy seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!' Hence it is written, Let truth spring up from the earth (ib. 12).

All our Rabbis say the following in the name of R. Hanina, while R. Phinehas and R. Hilkiah say it in the name of R. Simon: Me'od (E.V. 'very') is identical with Adam as it is written And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was good---me'od (Gen. I, 31), i.e. and behold Adam was good. R. Huna the Elder of Sepphoris, said : While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One, blessed be He, created him. Said He to them: 'What can ye avail? Man has already been made!'

Bereshith VIII.5

There are many ways of interpreting this text, and a great many voices at work in it. And yet, the underlying conviction through it all is that God acts according to what he sees as right, not because he has his own version of right different from another version of right, but because he can see all the various sides that created creatures cannot.

Again a similar reading can be offered of God's famous response to Job from Job 38:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
“Or who shut in the sea with doors
    when it burst out from the womb?—
when I made the clouds its garment,
    and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it,
    and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
    and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?
“Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
    and caused the dawn to know its place,
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth,
    and the wicked be shaken out of it?
It is changed like clay under the seal,
    and it is dyed like a garment.
Light is withheld from the wicked,
    and their uplifted arm is broken.
“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
    or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
    Declare, if you know all this.
“Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
    and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
    and that you may discern the paths to its home?
Surely you know, for you were born then,
    and the number of your days is great!
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
    or have you seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I have reserved for the time of trouble,
    for the day of battle and war?
What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
    or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?
“Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain,
    and a way for the thunderbolt,
to bring rain on a land where no one lives,
    on the desert, which is empty of human life,
to satisfy the waste and desolate land,
    and to make the ground put forth grass?
“Has the rain a father,
    or who has begotten the drops of dew?
From whose womb did the ice come forth,
    and who has given birth to the hoarfrost of heaven?
The waters become hard like stone,
    and the face of the deep is frozen.
“Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,
    or loose the cords of Orion?
Can you lead forth the Mazzaroth in their season,
    or can you guide the Bear with its children?
Do you know the ordinances of the heavens?
    Can you establish their rule on the earth?
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
    so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
    and say to you, ‘Here we are’?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
    or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
    Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
    and the clods cling together?
“Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
    or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
    or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
    when its young ones cry to God,
    and wander about for lack of food?

These latter two, of course, rely heavily on the inscrutable will of God, which you may not find a palatable answer. It is, nevertheless, an answer that some people have found sufficient.

More formally the problem of evil could be formulated thus (unapologetically stolen from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy):

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn't have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn't know when evil exists, or doesn't have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn't exist

It has therefore been assumed that one can resolve this problem not merely by claiming either that god is not morally perfect or not omnipotent, but that God may not be omniscient. For it would seem that if any of those three qualities is denied, the proof given above fails, and all three have been denied by various people endorsing various different doctrines.

To get at the broader question: is there a satisfactory answer to the problem of evil? For myself, I'm inclined to invoke Protagoras: "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life."

  • 1
    Thanks for the comprehensive answer, I did not realize that Lebniz's, Augustine's, and Acquinas's positions weren't that different. I'll modify your version of the question: if evil is created by some means that God (for whatever reason) places beyond his control, can he be considered moral? I do not mean immoral as synonymous to evil, but rather as devoid of considerations that we associate with morality, devoid of good and evil like water is devoid of shape. Exactly because God's perspective is infinitely broader than ours and our morality loses its meaning there.
    – Conifold
    Oct 1, 2014 at 2:02
  • What bothers me in the scholastic answer you describe is that they want human connotations to have and not to have meaning, whichever is more convenient. Positive connotations apply despite being human, negative ones do not because they are too human. They want to eat the cake and have it too. I assumed omniscience is part of omnipotence since the ultimate power includes knowledge of everything, and/or ability to gain it.
    – Conifold
    Oct 1, 2014 at 2:03
  • Premise 2 is not necessarily true. If evil lies ultimately in the will, then for God to eliminate evil He must eliminate free will. So, God is logically constrained to allow evil. If a logical constraint is not a constraint on omnipotence, as is generally accepted, then an omnipotent God can allow the possibility of evil.
    – yters
    Oct 1, 2014 at 23:12
  • @yters I don't think that God needs to eliminate free will to eliminate evil even if evil comes from free will. He only needs to find a possible world where only good is contingently chosen and create that one. That is not impossible even with the logical constraint on omnipotence.
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2014 at 23:22
  • 3
    Wait...omniscience is a necessary part of omnipotence!
    – Probably
    Jan 25, 2017 at 10:15

Why not create a world with freedom of the will, but without suffering?

This seems to allow two possibilities:

  1. No wrong choices are allowed.
  2. Wrong choices do not cause suffering.

To assert 1. would threaten to deny freedom; one quick argument is that freedom to choose which ice cream flavor is not true freedom. I presume there are more advanced forms of this argument, but they would depend on you further articulating what you mean by the word 'freedom'. As a heads-up, it is important to understand that there are at least the categories of 'freedom-from' and 'freedom-to'; I have seen many people err by omitting one of those.

To assert 2. is to require an accounting for how wrongness would be indicated. One possibility is to say that pain ⇏ suffering, that there is a way to live such that pain is noticed as more of an information signal that can be shut off once the wrongness it indicates is taken care of. Indeed, people with high pain tolerances seem to well-simulate this phenomenon: they can use the information provided by pain [up to a certain level] but not care about it otherwise.

Note that insensitivity to pain can be very bad; see for example congenital insensitivity to pain. A more extreme version is CIPA. People with CIP[A] must be very careful, like people with leprosy (it can destroy the nerve architecture).

Now, what is suffering but merely prolonged pain, due to those signals being ignored? If that is the case, one must restrict freedom in order to guarantee zero suffering. But this leaves us questioning whether 2. is even a coherent option: for it to obtain, we appear to have to deny a certain kind of freedom, which destroys the very argument we are trying to make.

Therefore, it appears that there is no guaranteed method for obtaining freedom ∧ ¬suffering.

  • 2
    There is a third possibility: wrong choices are allowed but are not taken. Omniscient God would know that in advance, while omnipotent one would be able to arrange it. There is a difference between coercion and providence, just because God creates a world where bad choices will not happen doesn't mean he has to force them not to happen.
    – Conifold
    Oct 1, 2014 at 0:53
  • 5
    @Conifold: Are you aware of the problems with Middle Knowledge? I could get into that, if you'd like. I generally see MK as philosophically dead, myself. I could also get into Plantinga's free will defense, which it seems is seen as a defeater to your argument, here.
    – labreuer
    Oct 1, 2014 at 1:56
  • 1
    I've never understood the free will response. Are people aware that not all suffering is caused by wrong choices?
    – Dave
    Oct 1, 2014 at 12:38
  • 2
    @Ransack: I suggest asking a new question: "Of what benefit is freedom?"
    – labreuer
    Oct 1, 2014 at 16:35
  • 1
    A world without malaria and ebola would have less suffering and the same freedom of will. Why we do not live there.
    – borjab
    Oct 15, 2014 at 16:23

The issue is you're approaching the problem in a different direction. The theodicy you lay out is derived from these premises:

  1. God is moral, and logically cannot be the source of evil
  2. Evil exists
  3. The only source of evil is free will

Notice that the starting premise is that God is not evil. Anselm's ontological argument underlies this notion. If God were evil, there would be an even greater being than God, which is a contradiction. Therefore, God is not evil.

So, the theodicy is derived by eliminating possibilities, and the only logical possibility left is that humans and other beings with free will are the authors of evil.

The problem with other theodicies, such as your own, is that denying any premise #1-3 is philosophically problematic. It isn't that there is some conspiracy to avoid saying God is evil or the author of evil, as that suggestion has been proposed many times (e.g. Homeric gods) and is actively believed by certain Christian and other religious sects today. Each premise was arrived at independently from the theodicy, and when you put them together you get the theodicy.

That being said, it doesn't quite make sense to me either. Being able to choose evil is not a necessary condition for having free will, as God can't choose evil yet has free will. The same goes for heavenly beings in general. If I were God, I wouldn't have given people the ability to be evil. However, it seems to be the only logical possibility once you accept premises #1-3.

  • 1
    Interesting answer. Anselm treats existence as a predicate though so I agree with Kant that the ontological argument is a fallacy. And I am inclined to think that good/evil qualification doesn't apply to God (and perhaps other advanced beings), so he can have free will but what he does in itself is neither good nor evil, nor even morally neutral, just orthogonal to morality.
    – Conifold
    Oct 2, 2014 at 23:37
  • 2
    Mistake of many investigators of evil to think that it is next to god (may he be its creator). It is not. It is just some thing, some period, in some place. It is same as to think that criminal sitting in local prison is spiritually close to the best men who created the world as we know it. Saying that i am not saying humans are not spiritually connected.
    – Asphir Dom
    Oct 3, 2014 at 0:57
  • @Conifold - Again, I do not necessarily disagree. I am merely trying to explain where the theodicy comes from, and why the OP's question is framed incorrectly.
    – yters
    Oct 4, 2014 at 1:59

We have to be careful about the level on which we place the infinite. If we put it on the level which is only suitable for the finite it does not much matter what name we give it.

There can be no manifest infinities in the world to the naked senses; thus the infinite is at an infinite distance from this world.

God has created a world which is not the best possible but which contains the whole range of good and evil. We are at the point where it is as bad as possible because beyond is the stage where evil becomes innocence.

God being perfect, and creation imperfect, creation can only occur where he is not; it is in the space of his absence that creation is made possible; and being less than perfect contains suffering/evil.

So rather than man withdrawing from God; it is God who withdraws so that man can be.

This theodice of Simone Weils is the inversion of the (Plotinist) emanationist cosmologies; it is also the same: absence being the lack of presence; presence being the lack of absence.

quotes from Weils Gravity & Grace.

  • creation is perfect, isn't it? that's rhetorical and stands to call out the casualness of such a statement as "god is perfect; creation isn't". that all depends on taste and definition. "god" is imperfect because our human mind is the only means to conceive of such a being, and all conceptions lead to either abstract uselessness, or certain absurdity in definition, hopelessly unfalsifiable either way. other than that, the tao also suggests a perfectly loving god trusts into the nature of creation, honoring its (and our) ability to preside over itself (ourselves). Jun 6, 2018 at 19:08

Franz Rosenzweig said God gave a place in Him to mankind. God is infinite power but He does what he is compelled to do by His very nature, man is infinite will, but he cannot do everything he wants. God is the creator ; he built the Creation and continues to do it, every living is free, freedom is part of the Creation, and in particular man has the consciousness of good and evil which are indissociable. The question of God's morality is therefore meaningless, free will contains in itself the possibility of evil. A world without free will has no consciousness. The question of morality belongs to man, it is typically human to curse God for the freedom he has. In the Jewish tradition, the 'very good' means death: so when at the end of the Genesis God says 'it is very good', He affix his seal on the creature : death. Maybe morality is not a question of being nice, "the road to hell is paved with good intention" says the popular wisdom, so questioning God morality because we suffers maybe falls a little short. About Kant Ethics and categorical imperative, Charles Peguy said: "the kantism has clean hands, the problem is that it has no hands"


We can surmise an answer in presuming there is a God, and one who is loving. I can only take credit for the criticism I give Thomas Jay Oord's "The Uncontrolling Love Of God" (Oord is a professor of philosophy and theology). He spells out the simple logic that a God whose nature is love where love is "others-enabling", God cannot prevent suffering (as defined as "that which doesn't lead to any ultimate improvement in reality"). That is the consequence of the idea that God cannot act against His nature, lest love is an accidental feature of God that He can actually choose to withhold or engage in contrast to it. It's logically valid, but I don't find it satisfying.

The criticism I have was hinted at in the original question. God may not intervene, but suppose that when setting up the conditions of our existence, did He choose them, or are they too, contingent and then necessary to some aim? I would presume that heaven is without suffering and entails free willing agents. If that's the view, then certainly the existence of free will isn't at issue. The issue is that God could have created a reality sans suffering, and He did. However, this universe entails evil.

We can only then say that evil, in addition to free will, is a necessary condition in order for God to obtain His reasons for creating anything at all.

Whether or not that makes God moral or immoral is debatable, given we don't know what God had in mind and the fact that even so, ends do not justify means and some pretty nasty evil abides!

  • (1) Which agents populate heaven? Those who have been formed by life in a sin-corrupted earth? If we want to allow for unborn babies to end up in heaven: Does heaven require at least a certain proportion or minimum number of such occupants, perhaps to teach the rest? (2) I think we should focus not on mistakes made by free-will agents on earth, but on the refusal to acknowledge making them and the insistence of running away from the one who could repair the damage. Perhaps one can stub one's toe in heaven.
    – labreuer
    Jun 9, 2018 at 17:50
  • i don't understand what any of this is relevant to. the fact is, if heaven is a place with free willing agents and a place without evil, then god could have created our universe without the possibility of evil too. those two issues raised simply don't have anything to do with that fact of the matter. Jun 10, 2018 at 21:30
  • That is not true if the heaven you envision can only exist if it is populated with at least some agents who have been formed by the universe you and I inhabit. In other words: history could matter.
    – labreuer
    Jun 11, 2018 at 22:10
  • as the story goes, angels have free will and exist in heaven and suffering doesn't. that avoids your (what i see as) non sequitur. however, popular conceptions of heaven are that it is a place without suffering and a place where"the souls of the faithfully departed" will eventually be. so either evil is an essential consequence of free will or it is accidental. heaven suggests the latter which entails god is culpable for evil after all. Jun 12, 2018 at 12:36

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