The Problem of Evil from a Panentheistic Perspective

“And there shall be no pain” (Rev 21:4) – suffering as the price for development

Scientific Essay 2010 17 Pages

Philosophy - Miscellaneous



Every attempt to solve the problem of evil contains the three following elements: (1) the notion of God (nG), (2) the notion of moral evil (me), and (3) the notion of physical evil (phe). Over the course of the history of philosophy and religion, different combinations of these three elements have resulted in three general views on evil, which are that (a) there is no evil (noev), (b) God is responsible for evil (Grespev), and (c) humans are responsible for evil (humrespev). To these classical approaches, I would like to add a fourth view, a panentheistic one, that regards evil as the price for development (evprdev).

God and the notion of good and evil

Whoever aims to give a definition of evil faces the danger of committing the logical fallacy known as petitio principi, that is, to define evil correctly, we must first know what evil is. This somewhat circular claim results from the fact that the notion of evil, together with the notion of good, is axiomatic both in philosophy and in religion. Thus, before we proceed in the way of all axiomatic systems, that is, to assume one possible definition of evil in order to verify or falsify it during the further deduction, we should ask about the lexical definition of evil. According to the dictionaries of philosophy, the notion of evil indicates a negative ethical judgement.[1] This definition, however, seems quite tautological because the definiendum “negative” is synonymous to the definiens “evil.” By defining “negative” as “opposite to positive” or “evil” as “contrary to good,” the problem remains the same. This problem of circularity, however, results not from the insufficiency of the definition of evil shown above but from the metaphysical problem of evil. Because the definition of “evil” requires the definition of “good” and vice versa, we must first point out what the one is, in order to describe the other.

The history of philosophy shows us two possible approaches to the issue of good and evil (g/e). Either the question of g/e is absolute and hence immutable or it is defined by a convention. Let us name these two approaches the absolutist and the conventionalist approach to g/e. In the case of the conventionalist approach, g/e is defined by society; the social conventions mirror the convictions of the majority and are accepted by the minority. In this way, conventions serve social harmony by preventing anarchy and ensuring social order. Conventions, however, can be changed any time a society wishes to do so, and they are therefore neither absolute nor permanent.[2] The absolutist approach has an entirely different view on the g/e issue . According to this approach, g/e mirrors an objective reality existing somewhere beyond human reach and definition. This reality can be identified with God’s will, according to the theistic perspective, or with karma, according to the nontheistic perspective. By this means, humans are not makers but readers of an absolute moral order.[3] Consequently, it is not irrelevant whether humans define the absolute and objective “evil” as “good” according to their subjective definition or vice versa. From this, it follows that a life against the objective moral order, which is inscribed in the order of nature, causes human suffering in the long run.

Both the conventionalist and the absolutist approach to the g/e issue seem somehow deficient. The conventionalist approach, which assumes almost an exchangeability of g/e, does not explain why evil (such as adultery) causes suffering and why good (such as give money to the poor) causes happiness. If these capital notions are really exchangeable as defined by the society’s convention, they should not make any difference to a person’s suffering or happiness. But they certainly do. In contrast, the absolutist approach places g/e within the transcendent God as a part of his nature and within the world order as well. It does not, however, answer the question of why God’s intrinsic nature affects the world that exists somehow independently from God and outside of Him. If God is fully transcendent and totally alien (totum aliud) to the world, which takes its own course, there should be no interference from God on the world’s natural process, nor should there be any divine influence on the pure human notions of moral g/e. Moreover, God’s transcendence causes problems in regard to the g/e issue regardless of whether evil is considered as something with ontic reality or as absence of good. The claim that g/e abides both in God and in nature makes sense only if we accept that God also abides in nature. This, however, requires considering God not only as transcendent but also as immanent. The emphasis of His immanence, again, allows us to focus on His presence within the world.

In order to avoid logical and ontological aporias resulting from defining evil as the opposite of good, I would like to define evil (ev) as “something that causes suffering” (stcsf). By suffering (sf), I understand something that disturbs the equilibrium of a system and causes effort to establish a new equilibrium (deq). Hence, ev = stcsf. Because sf is deq, the formalized definition of evil is ev = stcdeq. By system, I understand, “a set of elements standing in interrelations.”[4] Thus, evil is that which causes suffering by disturbing the equilibrium of a set of elements standing in interrelations. This broad and subjectivist definition of evil can nevertheless be applied to very different systems, such as physical, chemical, organic, and social (family, nation, or humankind) systems.

The notion of moral evil (me)

The notion of moral evil (me) is applied to a suffering (sf as deq) caused by a moral agent, that is, somebody who acts (a) intentionally and (b) voluntarily. If either (a) or (b) is missing, the act cannot be considered as human, and the acting person is not morally responsible for it. The act, however, still causes evil defined as stcdeq, both in the person acting, who continuous changes for worse, and in the suffering of the person acted upon. According to some views on ethics only me can be considered as evil in the narrow sense of the word. This perspective stresses the agent’s responsibility, which can be assumed only if a moral law is known to the agent and possible to be fulfilled.[5] Depending upon whether the conventionalist or the absolutist approach to the g/e issue is adopted, the question may arise as to what extent moral knowledge has an impact on moral acts. Or to put it differently, what is the relation between intellects and will in a moral act? We certainly know that some people are partially or absolutely incapable of morality. This occurs due to their psychopathic personalities or to their mental or physical disabilities.[6] Nevertheless, people who are incapable of morality cause evil in that they bring suffering on others. However, due to their lack of moral responsibility, as the evil they ignorantly and/or involuntarily commit seems somehow to vanish. Still, from the victim’s perspective, it is the moral condemnation, strictly connected with moral responsibility, that counts. We can often see that the human sense of justice is fully satisfied only then, when the malefactor shows repentance as a sign of his moral responsibility. Even a severe punishment by the law may seem unsatisfactory. Because me is strictly connected with moral responsibility, other kinds of evil, such as physical or metaphysical evil, cannot be rationally explained from this perspective. Consequently, such forms of evil are declared mysteries, which does not necessarily help people who suffering from them.

The notion of physical evil (phe)

The notion of physical evil (phe) includes any suffering that is caused by the powers of nature (earthquake, flood, etc.), by chance (accident), or by organic development (disease, death). Phe is consistent with the definition of evil as stcdeq because the destruction of one equilibrium in favor of establishing another can be observed in animals, plants, geological structures, et cetera. Hence, phe as the suffering of all entities seems ubiquitous and consequently somehow necessary. Yet, even if the necessity of earthquakes and tsunamis due to global volcanism seems somehow justified if it doesn’t hurt any living being, phe seems evil when it includes pain. Evolution complained as “red in tooth and claws”[7] by Dawkins[8] and Darwin[9] seems to be full of inevitable pain, which from the perspective of the suffering individual appears pointless. One possible answer to this problem is to compare the pain in nature to the pain in the body. Body pain indicates either a stage in an organism’s development (growing pains, muscle ache, birth) or a malfunction of some of its parts. In the latter case, pain occurs in order to save the whole organism, as a system.[10] Another possible approach to phe is to expand the notion of pain beyond humans and animals. According to recent research, pain (p0), defined as susceptibility to stress, can be attributed also to plants.[11] It is very likely that p0 exists on every levels of life, from bacteria upward to humans. In accordance with the definition ev = stcdeq, we can even claim that everything, from the subquantum level up, is subjected to changes in these four stages: (1) equilibriuma, (2) destruction of the equilibriuma, and (3) additive energetic expense, which finally results in (4) equilibriumb. Consequently, everything seems to be subjected to p0, which occurs between stages two and three. The acceptance of the upper notion of phe makes phe inevitable. If the shift between equilibriuma and equilibriumb can be attributed to any system, phe cannot be considered as evil in the sense that evil is opposite to good. From this point of view, any attempt to draw parallels between me and phe is misleading. Hence, we can speak about cruelty in nature only in a metaphorical way. For nature, from physics to biology, simply lacks a choice to act differently as a whole system. Thus, any process of an individual entity is balanced by the process of another.


[1] Walter Brugger, Philosophisches Wörterbuch (Freiburg: Herder 1998), 51.

[2] The conventionalist approach can be found in Lawrence Kohlberg, Charles Levine, and Alexandra Hewer, Moral stages: a current formulation and a response to critics (Basel: Karger, 1983), among others. In the history of modern philosophy, it was Friedrich Nietzsche who gave in his work “Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außermoralischen Sinn” (1873) an epistemological rationale to the conventionalist approach, claiming that the notion of truth is defined by convention. Cf. Antonie Meijers, “Gustav Gerber und Fr. Nietzsche. Zum historischen Hintergrund der sprachphilosophischen Auffassung des frühen Nietzsche,” Nietzsche-Studien 17 (1988): 369-390; Rainer Thurher, “Sprache und Welt bei Friedrich Nietzsche,” Nietzsche-Studien 9 (1980): 38-60.

[3] The absolutist approach is consistent with the classical theory of natural and divine law of Augustine and Aquinas. Cf. Celia Deane-Drummond, “Plumbing the depths. A Recovery of Natural Law and Natural Wisdom in the Context of Debates about Evolutionary Purpose,” in Simon Convey Morris (ed.), The deep structure of biology. Is Convergence Sufficiently Ubiquitous to Give a Directional Signal? (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2008), 195-217.

[4] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General system theory: foundations, development, applications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1971), 17.

[5] Cf. Guy Jobin, “Le paradigme de la responsabilité comme condition de l'éthique théologique,” Laval théologique et philosophique 60, no.1 (2004): 129-148; Arthur J. Dycke, “Taking responsibility for our common morality,“Harvard theological review 98, no. 4 (2005): 391-417.

[6] Cf. Hans Michael Baumgartner and Albin Eser, Schuld und Verantwortung: philosophische und juristische Beiträge zur Zurechenbarkeit menschlichen Handelns. Von: Görres-Gesellschaft. Sektion für Philosophie, Görres-Gesellschaft. Sektion für Rechts- und Staatswissenschaft (Tübbingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1983).

[7] Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H. H. Canto 56 Tennyson. in Christopher Ricks (ed.), Tennyson. A Selected Edition. (Harlow: Longman, 2007), 399.

[8] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 2.

[9] Charles Darwin wrote, “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to be too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Quoted in Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 127.

[10] Walter B. Cannon, The Wisdom of the Body (New York: Norton Library 1967), 216-230.

[11] Anthony Trewavas, “Aspects of Plant Intelligence” in Morris, The deep structure of biology, 91; Widmar Tanner, “Do drought-hardened plants suffer from fever?,” Trends in plant science 6, no. 11, (November 2001): 507.


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Philosophy of religion Theodicy Classical theism. Panentheism. Best of possible worlds. Catholic tradition.

Title: The Problem of Evil from a Panentheistic Perspective