A theological problem.

If God is both omnipotent and good why is evil, suffering, and death permitted in our world? Why does shit happen?

In "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," Harold Kushner does a good job of explaining how human beings try to grapple with this, but nobody has a definitive answer.

Theodicy is not to be confused with Homeric epic poetry.

This is also known as the Problem of Evil. The existence of a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent is not compatible with the existence of evil.

The general explanation given by religious people as to why bad things happen in this world is that God created Man with free will, and sometimes Man is bad.

This doesn't, of course, explain earthquakes and famines and floods and other Acts of God, which by definition are God's own doing.

My personal theory is that God, if such a being exists, is not omnipotent; in fact, he goes so far as to demonstrate incompetence. Sorry, but it's true. If Free Will causes bad things to happen, it was a pretty bad idea to include it in the spec in the first place....

It's only a theory, anyway.

The doctrine of Original Sin provides at least some insight into this by stating that there are two kinds of evil: physical evil and moral evil. Moral evil is that which comes about from humans' sinful acts--rape, murder, etc. The suffering inherent in these is usually not difficult to trace. Physical evil, on the other hand, springs not from present humans' wrongs but from the intrinsically disordered state of the universe as it is, brought on by the first sin (whatever that was; Catholicism at least does not make the absurd claim that it was a pair of naked people eating bad fruit). One metaphor might be that sin is a horrible pollutant in the spiritual and natural ecosystem of the world--the poison enters at some fundamental level, then spreads, contaminating things all the way up the food chain. It is not, technically, a divine punishment, but a simple consequence of the introduction of sin. It is this physical evil that brings disease, natural disasters, accidents, etc. even to the undeserving.

Small reassurance, I know. It bites that we have to deal with problems left over from the dawn of humanity. But it is an explanation, and one that many anti-religious people don't even bother to look into. They just assume that because they have an argument against it, the religion must be flawed.

God is Good--Depending on What You Mean By "Good"

Theodicy-the mystery of how an all-good God can allow evil and suffering to exist-has been dealt with here, especially by our theological dominatrix, Deborah909. Over the centuries, theodicy has driven multitudes of kindly and capable thinkers absolutely batshit. God is good-so why do I have a tootheache?

The most broadly promulgated explanation cooks down to, God has His Reasons and we're too dumb to grasp them and shouldn't try. (See the Book of Job, where God yells testily at Job: "Where were you when I poured the foundations of the Earth? Were you there handing me the rebar?") I never cared for this explanation, which is really a cruel dodge. The Book of Job is a metaphor of God's power, not his cuddliness. It's really the answer to a much different question, posed by a much different time and culture.

There is another approach to theodicy that I take, and first read in John Polkinghorne's excellent book, The Faith of a Physicist. (In print; go to Amazon.) In summary, the goodness of God is measured by the degree of freedom he allows his creations, not by the degree to which he keeps them from beating up on each other. An all-good God allows his creations complete freedom, meaning freedom from interference by said God. If this were not so, we would all be grinning plaster gnomes on God's front lawn, which doesn't sound like much fun to me. Freedom, of course, implies a conflict of desires between free creatures, which often leads to those creatures offing one another in gruesome ways.

Similarly, the physical world (the source of "natural evil" like being on the wrong side of Mount St. Helens when it blows) is free to be what it was created to be. It is the nature of volcanoes to flood the land with molten rock. That's their job. If they didn't do that, they wouldn't be volcanoes. God doesn't interfere. A volcano is free to be what it is. So if you build a village next to that mountain, rube, don't blame God when it goes up in smoke.

Many who recognize the fundamental importance of freedom have asked why we were not all given a balancing measure of moral sense at birth. That, too, may be an expression of God's goodness. We have to be free to be nasty, or we're not really free. God is smart enough to understand that, and good enough to let it be so.

In my view, the contradiction suggested by theodicy is resolved by theosis…but that's for another time and another node or five. Stay tuned.

Philosophical Works, Trans, G. M. Duncan. New Haven, 1890. Leibniz's Theodicy (Essais de Theodicee) was published in Amsterdam in 1710. Frederick Copleston characterizes the Theodicy as a systematic answer to Bayle's article 'Rorarius' in his Historical and Critical Dictionary. The abridgment of the Theodicy's argument, presented here, is Leibniz's own.
Abridgement of the Argument Reduced to Syllogistic Form
by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Some intelligent persons have desired that this supplement be made, and I have the more readily yielded to their wishes as in this way I have an opportunity again to remove certain difficulties and to make some observations which were not sufficiently emphasized in the work itself.

I. Objection.
Whoever does not choose the best is lacking in power, or in knowledge, or in goodness.
God did not choose the best in creating this world.
Therefore, God has been lacking in power, or in knowledge, or in goodness.

Answer. I deny the minor, that is, the second premise of this syllogism; and our opponent proves it by this.

Whoever makes things in which there is evil, which could have been made without any evil, or the making of which could have been omitted, does not choose the best.
God has made a world in which there is evil, a world, I say, which could have been made without any evil, or the making of which could have been omitted altogether.
Therefore, God has not chosen the best.

Answer. I grant the minor of this prosyllogism; for it must be confessed that there is evil in this world which God has made, and that it was possible to make a world without evil, or even not to create a world at all, for its creation has depended on the free will of God; but I deny the major, that is, the first of the two premises of the prosyllogism, and I might content myself with simply demanding its proof; but in order to make the matter clearer, I have wished to justify this denial by showing that the best plan is not always that which seeks to avoid evil, since it may happen that the evil is accompanied by a greater good. For example, a general of an army will prefer a great victory with a slight wound to a condition without wound and without victory. We have proved this more fully in the large work by making it clear, by instances taken from mathematics and elsewhere, that an imperfection in the part may be required for a greater perfection in the whole. In this I have followed the opinion of St. Augustine, who has said a hundred times, that God has permitted evil in order to bring about good, that is, a greater good; and that of Thomas Aquinas (in libr. II. sent. dist. 32, qu. I, art. 1), that the permitting of evil tends to the good of the universe. I have shown that the ancients called Adam's fall felix culpa, a happy sin, because it had been retrieved with immense advantage by the incarnation of the Son of God, who has given to the universe something nobler than anything that ever would have been among creatures except for it. For the sake of a clearer understanding, I have added, following many good authors, that it was in accordance with order and the general good that God allowed to certain creatures the opportunity of exercising their liberty, even when he foresaw that they would turn to evil, but which he could so well rectify; because it was not fitting that, in order to hinder sin, God should always act in an extraordinary manner. To overthrow this objection, therefore, it is sufficient to show that a world with evil might be better than a world without evil; but I have gone even farther, in the work, and have even proved that this universe must be in reality better than every other possible universe.

II. Objection.
If there is more evil than good in intelligent creatures, then there is more evil than good in the whole work of God.
Now, there is more evil than good in intelligent creatures.
Therefore, there is more evil than good in the whole work of God.

Answer. I deny the major and the minor of this conditional syllogism. As to the major, I do not admit it at all, because this pretended deduction from a part to the whole, from intelligent creatures to all creatures, supposes tacitly and without proof that creatures destitute of reason cannot enter into comparison nor into account with those which possess it. But why may it not be that the surplus of good in the nonintelligent creatures which fill the world, compensates for, and even incomparably surpasses, the surplus of evil in the rational creatures? It is true that the value of the latter is greater; but, in compensation, the others are beyond comparison the more numerous, and it may be that the proportion of number and quantity surpasses that of value and of quality.

As to the minor, that is no more to be admitted; that is, it is not at all to be admitted that there is more evil than good in the intelligent creatures. There is no need even of granting that there is more evil than good in the human race, because it is possible, and in fact very probable, that the glory and the perfection of the blessed are incomparably greater than the misery and the imperfection of the damned, and that here the excellence of the total good in the smaller number exceeds the total evil in the greater number. The blessed approach the Divinity, by means of a Divine Mediator, as near as may suit these creatures, and make such progress in good as is impossible for the damned to make in evil, approach as nearly as they may to the nature of demons. God is infinite, and the devil is limited; the good may and does go to infinity, while evil has its bounds. It is therefore possible, and is credible, that in the comparison of the blessed and the damned, the contrary of that which I have said might happen in the comparison of intelligent and nonintelligent creatures, takes place; namely, it is possible that in the comparison of the happy and the unhappy, the proportion of degree exceeds that of number, and that in the comparison of intelligent and nonintelligent creatures, the proportion of number is greater than that of value. I have the right to suppose that a thing is possible so long as its impossibility is not proved; and indeed that which I have here advanced is more than a supposition.

But in the second place, if I should admit that there is more evil than good in the human race, I have still good grounds for not admitting that there is more evil than good in all intelligent creatures. For there is an inconceivable number of genii, and perhaps of other rational creatures. And an opponent could not prove that in all the City of God, composed as well of genii as of rational animals without number and of an infinity of kinds, evil exceeds good. And although in order to answer an objection, there is no need of proving that a thing is, when its mere possibility suffices; yet, in this work, I have not omitted to show that it is a consequence of the supreme perfection of the Sovereign of the universe, that the kingdom of God is the most perfect of all possible states or governments, and that consequently the little evil there is, is required for the consummation of the immense good which is found there.

III. Objection.
If it is always impossible not to sin, it is always unjust to punish.
Now, it is always impossible not to sin; or, in other words, every sin is necessary. Therefore, it is always unjust to punish.
The minor of this is proved thus:

1. Prosyllogism.
All that is predetermined is necessary.
Every event is predetermined.
Therefore, every event (and consequently sin also) is necessary.

Again this second minor is proved thus:

2. Prosyllogism.
That which is future, that which is foreseen, that which is involved in the causes, is predetermined.
Every event is such.
Therefore, every event is predetermined.

Answer. I admit in a certain sense the conclusion of the second prosyllogism, which is the minor of the first; but I shall deny the major of the first prosyllogism, namely, that every thing predetermined is necessary; understanding by the necessity of sinning, for example, or by the impossibility of not sinning, or of not performing any action, the necessity with which we are here concerned, that is, that which is essential and absolute, and which destroys the morality of an action and the justice of punishments. For if anyone understood another necessity or impossibility, namely, a necessity which should be only moral, or which was only hypothetical (as will be explained shortly); it is clear that I should deny the major of the objection itself. I might content myself with this answer and demand the proof of the proposition denied; but I have again desired to explain my procedure in this work, in order to better elucidate the matter and to throw more light on the whole subject, by explaining the necessity which ought to be rejected and the determination which must take place. That necessity which is contrary to morality and which ought to be rejected, and which would render punishment unjust, is an insurmountable necessity which would make all opposition useless, even if we should wish with all our heart to avoid the necessary action, and should make all possible efforts to that end. Now, it is manifest that this is not applicable to voluntary actions, because we would not perform them if we did not choose to. Also their prevision and predetermination are not absolute, but presuppose the will: if it is certain that we shall perform them, it is not less certain that we shall choose to perform them. These voluntary actions and their consequences will not take place no matter what we do or whether we wish them or not; but, through that which we shall do and through that which we shall wish to do, which leads to them. And this is involved in prevision and in predetermination, and even constitutes their ground. And the necessity of such an event is called conditional or hypothetical, or the necessity of consequence, because it supposes the will, and the other requisites; whereas the necessity which destroys morality and renders punishment unjust and reward useless, exists in things which will be whatever we may do or whatever we may wish to do, and, in a word, is in that which is essential; and this is what is called an absolute necessity. Thus it is to no purpose, as regards what is absolutely necessary, to make prohibitions or commands, to propose penalties or prizes, to praise or to blame; it will be none the less. On the other hand, in voluntary actions and in that which depends upon them, precepts armed with power to punish and to recompense are very often of use and are included in the order of causes which make an action exist. And it is for this reason that not only cares and labors but also prayers are useful; God having had these prayers in view before he regulated things and having had that consideration for them which was proper. This is why the precept which says ora et labora (pray and work), holds altogether good; and not only those who (under the vain pretext of the necessity of events) pretend that the care which business demands may be neglected, but also those who reason against prayer, fall into what the ancients even then called the lazy sophism. Thus the predetermination of events by causes is just what contributes to morality instead of destroying it, and causes incline the will, without compelling it. This is why the determination in question is not a necessitation - it is certain (to him who knows all) that the effect will follow this inclination; but this effect does not follow by a necessary consequence, that is, one the contrary of which implies contradiction. It is also by an internal inclination such as this that the will is determined, without there being any necessity. Suppose that one has the greatest passion in the world (a great thirst, for example), you will admit to me that the soul can find some reason for resisting it, if it were only that of showing its power. Thus, although one may never be in a perfect indifference of equilibrium and there may be always a preponderance of inclination for the side taken, it, nevertheless, never renders the resolution taken absolutely necessary.

IV. Objection.
Whoever can prevent the sin of another and does not do so but rather contributes to it although he is well informed of it, is accessory to it.
God can prevent the sin of intelligent creatures; but he does not do so, and rather contributes to it by his concurrence and by the opportunities which he brings about, although he has a perfect knowledge of it.
Hence, etc.

Answer. I deny the major of this syllogism. For it is possible that one could prevent sin, but ought not, because he could not do it without himself committing a sin, or (when God is in question) without performing an unreasonable action. Examples have been given and the application to God himself has been made. It is possible also that we contribute to evil and that sometimes we even open the road to it, in doing things which we are obliged to do; and, when we do our duty or (in speaking of God) when, after thorough consideration, we do that which reason demands, we are not responsible for the results, even when we foresee them. We do not desire these evils; but we are willing to permit them for the sake of a greater good which we cannot reasonably help preferring to other considerations. And this is a consequent will, which results from antecedent wills by which we will the good. I know that some persons, in speaking of the antecedent and consequent will of God, have understood by the antecedent that which wills that all men should be saved; and by the consequent, that which wills, in consequence of persistent sin, that some should be damned. But these are merely illustrations of a more general idea, and it may be said for the same reason that God, by his antecedent will, wills that men should not sin; and by his consequent or final and decreeing will (that which is always followed by its effect), he wills to permit them to sin, this permission being the result of superior reasons. And we have the right to say in general that the antecedent will of God tends to the production of good and the prevention of evil, each taken in itself and as if alone (particulariter et secundum quid, Thom. I, qu. 19, art. 6), according to the measure of the degree of each good and of each evil; but that the divine consequent or final or total will tends toward the production of as many goods as may be put together, the combination of which becomes in this way determined, and includes also the permission of some evils and the exclusion of some goods, as the best possible plan for the universe demands. Arminius, in his Anti-perkinsus, has very well explained that the will of God may be called consequent, not only in relation to the action of the creature considered beforehand in the divine understanding, but also in relation to other anterior divine acts of will. But this consideration of the passage cited from Thomas Aquinas, and that from Scotus (I. dist. 46, qu. XI), is enough to show that they make this distinction as I have done here. Nevertheless, if anyone objects to this use of terms let him substitute deliberating will, in place of antecedent, and final or decreeing will, in place of consequent. For I do not wish to dispute over words.

V. Objection.
Whoever produces all that is real in a thing, is its cause.
God produces all that is real in sin.
Hence, God is the cause of sin.

Answer. I might content myself with denying the major or the minor, since the term real admits of interpretations which would render these propositions false. But in order to explain more clearly, I will make a distinction. Real signifies either that which is positive only, or, it includes also privative beings: in the first case, I deny the major and admit the minor; in the second case, I do the contrary. I might have limited myself to this, but I have chosen to proceed still farther and give the reason for this distinction. I have been very glad therefore to draw attention to the fact that every reality purely positive or absolute is a perfection; and that imperfection comes from limitation, that is, from the privative: for to limit is to refuse progress, or the greatest possible progress. Now God is the cause of all perfections and consequently of all realities considered as purely positive. But limitations or privations result from the original imperfection of creatures, which limits their receptivity. And it is with them as with a loaded vessel, which the river causes to move more or less slowly according to the weight which it carries: thus its speed depends upon the river, but the retardation which limits this speed comes from the load. Thus in the Theodicy, we have shown how the creature, in causing sin, is a defective cause; how errors and evil inclinations are born of privation; and how privation is accidentally efficient; and I have justified the opinion of St. Augustine (lib. I. ad Simpl. qu. 2) who explains, for example, how God makes the soul obdurate, not by giving it something evil, but because the effect of his good impression is limited by the soul's resistance and by the circumstances which contribute to this resistance, so that he does not give it all the good which would overcome its evil. Nec (inquit) ab illo erogatur aliquid quo homo fit deterior, sed tantum quo fit melior non erogatur. But if God had wished to do more, he would have had to make either other natures for creatures or other miracles to change their natures, things which the best plan could not admit. It is as if the current of the river must be more rapid than its fall admitted or that the boats should be loaded more lightly, if it were necessary to make them move more quickly. And the original limitation or imperfection of creatures requires that even the best plan of the universe could not receive more good, and could not be exempt from certain evils, which, however, are to result in a greater good. There are certain disorders in the parts which marvelously enhance the beauty of the whole; just as certain dissonances, when properly used, render harmony more beautiful. But this depends on what has already been said in answer to the first objection.

VI. Objection.
Whoever punishes those who have done as well as it was in their power to do, is unjust.
God does so.
Hence, etc.

Answer. I deny the minor of this argument. And I believe that God always gives sufficient aid and grace to those who have a good will, that is, to those who do not reject this grace by new sin. Thus I do not admit the damnation of infants who have died without baptism or outside of the church; nor the damnation of adults who have acted according to the light which God has given them. And I believe that if any one has followed the light which has been given him, he will undoubtedly receive greater light when he has need of it, as the late M. Hulseman, a profound and celebrated theologian at Leipzig, has somewhere remarked; and if such a man has failed to receive it during his lifetime he will at least receive it when at the point of death.

VII. Objection.
Whoever gives only to some, and not to all, the means which produces in them effectively a good will and salutary final faith, has not sufficient goodness.
God does this.
Hence, etc.

Answer. I deny the major of this. It is true that God could overcome the greatest resistance of the human heart; and does it, too, sometimes, either by internal grace, or by external circumstances which have a great effect on souls; but he does not always do this. Whence comes this distinction? it may be asked, and why does his goodness seem limited? It is because, as I have already said in answering the first objection, it would not have been in order always to act in an extraordinary manner, and to reverse the connection of things. The reasons of this connection, by means of which one is placed in more favorable circumstances than another, are hidden in the depths of the wisdom of God: they depend upon the universal harmony. The best plan of the universe, which God could not fail to choose, made it so. We judge from the event itself; since God has made it, it was not possible to do better. Far from being true that this conduct is contrary to goodness, it is supreme goodness which led him to it. This objection with its solution might have been drawn from what was said in regard to the first objection; but it seemed useful to touch upon it separately.

VIII. Objection.
Whoever cannot fail to choose the best, is not free.
God cannot fail to choose the best.
Hence, God is not free.

Answer. I deny the major of this argument; it is rather true liberty, and the most perfect, to be able to use one's free will for the best, and to always exercise this power, without ever being turned aside either by external force or by internal passions, the first of which causes slavery of the body, the second, slavery of the soul. There is nothing less servile, and nothing more in accordance with the highest degree of freedom, than to be always led toward the good, and always by one's own inclination, without any constraint and without any displeasure. And to object therefore that God had need of external things, is only a sophism. He created them freely; but having proposed to himself an end, which is to exercise his goodness, wisdom has determined him to choose the means best fitted to attain this end. To call this a need, is to take that term in an unusual sense which frees it from all imperfection, just as when we speak of the wrath of God.

Seneca has somewhere said that God commanded but once but that he obeys always, because he obeys laws which he willed to prescribe to himself: semel jussit, semper paret. But he might better have said that God always commands and that he is always obeyed; for in willing, he always follows the inclination of his own nature, and all other things always follow his will. And as this will is always the same, it cannot be said that he obeys only that will which he formerly had. Nevertheless, although his will is always infallible and always tends toward the best, the evil, or the lesser good, which he rejects, does not cease to be possible in itself; otherwise the necessity of the good would be geometrical (so to speak), or metaphysical, and altogether absolute; the contingency of things would be destroyed, and there would be no choice. But this sort of necessity, which does not destroy the possibility of the contrary, has this name only by analogy; it becomes effective, not by the pure essence of things, but by that which is outside of them, above them, namely, by the will of God. This necessity is called moral, because, to the sage, necessity and what ought to be are equivalent things; and when it always has its effect, as it really has in the perfect sage, that is, in God, it may be said that it is a happy necessity. The nearer creatures approach to it, the nearer they approach to perfect happiness. Also this kind of necessity is not that which we try to avoid and which destroys morality, rewards and praise. For that which it brings, does not happen whatever we may do or will, but because we will it so. And a will to which it is natural to choose well, merits praise so much the more; also it carries its reward with it, which is sovereign happiness. And as this constitution of the divine nature gives entire satisfaction to him who possesses it, it is also the best and the most desirable for the creatures who are all dependent on God. If the will of God did not have for a rule the principle of the best, it would either tend toward evil, which would be the worst; or it would be in some way indifferent to good and to evil, and would be guided by chance: but a will which would allow itself always to act by chance, would not be worth more for the government of the universe than the fortuitous concourse of atoms, without there being any divinity therein. And even if God should abandon himself to chance only in some cases and in a certain way (as he would do, if he did not always work entirely for the best and if he were capable of preferring a lesser work to a greater, that is, an evil to a good, since that which prevents a greater good is an evil), he would be imperfect, as well as the object of his choice; he would not merit entire confidence; he would act without reason in such a case, and the government of the universe would be like certain games, equally divided between reason and chance. All this proves that this objection which is made against the choice of the best, perverts the notions of the free and of the necessary, and represents to us the best even as evil: which is either malicious or ridiculous.

Traditionally, theodicy does not refer to the problem of evil per se, but rather to intellectual devices that are seen to vindicate the claim that the world (or God) is just and holy. Originally applied only within the Christian theological tradition, Max Müller extended the idea of theodicy to encompass any feature of a belief system that acts to explain the injustices and trials of the world. In this light, the Buddhist belief in karma (kamma) and rebirth is a theodicy. The world itself is morally neutral, and good and evil are the products of human action. Even in a seeming 'natural' disaster, karma may be at work in the choice of who is or isn't harmed in the process (Note that contrary to popular belief, Buddhism does not regard karma as the only cause of events in the world, even those which intersect the lives of sentient beings)

Theodicy is seen as being a central feature of most religious faiths; the theory goes that in order to be succesful in the world, the Problem of Evil has to be addressed. In non-theistic traditions, or those that do not postulate a single omnipotent being, the problem of Evil is not "why is evil permitted? by God", but rather "why does evil exist in the world?". Other examples of theodicy are found in Confucian beliefs in the will or mandate of Heaven (the cosmos is orderly and good, but an unjust ruler introduces disharmony), animistic beliefs in nature spirits (bad growing seasons are the result of offended rain or harvest spirits) and, as someone mentioned above, the idea in Christianity that God may be unable to stop some actions from taking place, either due to inability (non-omnipotence) or as a consequence of free will (God created volcanos, but you chose to live under a volcano; God can't help you out without isolating you from the consequences of your choice, making free will somewhat superfluous).

The*od"i*cy (?), n. [NL. theodicaea, fr. Gr. God + right, justice: cf. F. th'eodic'ee.]


A vindication of the justice of God in ordaining or permitting natural and moral evil.


That department of philosophy which treats of the being, perfections, and government of God, and the immortality of the soul.



© Webster 1913.

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