Does Evil Have a Purpose in Life?

From the lecture series: Philosophy of Religion

By James Hall, Ph.D, University of Richmond

What is the purpose of evil? Why does it exist? The most widely cited theodicy for human evil relies on the notion that the possibility of evil is a necessary condition for the occurrence of human freedom and autonomy.

image of The Triumph of Death for the article on Does Evil Have a Purpose
“The Triumph of Death” – Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c. 1562. Located in the Museo del Prado in Madrid. (Image: By Pieter Bruegel the Elder/Public domain)

If you take it apart and look at the structure of it, it looks something like this: If this is the best of all possible worlds, then it must be a world in which people choose the good, rather than a world in which people simply function as automatons like puppets on strings. In that kind of world, they would be amoral—there would be no moral dimension to their lives at all. So, in the best possible world, people must choose the good.

If this is the best of all possible worlds, then it must be a world in which people choose the good, rather than a world in which people simply function as automatons like puppets on strings.

Learn more: Why is Evil a Problem?

But one can’t freely choose the good, absent the opportunity to choose otherwise. And so, if this, being the best possible world, entails that people freely choose the good, it must be a world in which they can freely choose the other. The potential for evil is necessary in the best of all possible worlds. But this opportunity to choose otherwise wouldn’t be real—or so the argument goes—unless from time to time the option was selected. The reality of the opportunity to choose otherwise is made real only when, from time to time, people do, in fact, choose otherwise.

This is a transcript from the video series Philosophy of Religion. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Failed Atheist Argument

Highlighted English word "atheism" and its definition in the dictionary
A common argument for atheism is the appeal to theodicy—that a true and just God would not allow evil to exist in this world. Image: Lobroart/Shutterstock)

There is no highest good without freedom. There is no freedom without the potential for and the occurrence of evil. In order for this to be the best of all possible worlds, as far as human beings and their conduct are concerned, there must be, as a practical means to a greater good, namely, freedom itself, evils in the world. Thus the atheistic argument against the existence of God on the basis of the occurrence of human evils, at any rate, fails. However, to say that the atheist’s argument against the existence of God on the basis of human evils has failed does not in any sense prove that there is a God. It simply shows that the atheist’s argument that there isn’t one didn’t reach closure. It leaves the issue, then, still open.

To say that the atheist’s argument against the existence of God on the basis of human evils has failed does not in any sense prove that there is a God. It simply shows that the atheist’s argument that there isn’t one didn’t reach closure.

This line of reasoning is not available to any arguer who does not believe that people have free will in the first place. If, for one reason or another, perhaps because you are a fiercely Skinnerian behaviorist, you think that people really are automatons, always have been and always will be, then the free-will theodicy is not a place that you are going to want to go shopping to look for a rationale to defend theism against atheistic attack. Really hard-case predestinarians—they’re sometimes called hyper-Calvinists—would not find this a very promising theodicy either, because if you totally buy into the concept of strict predestination, that strict predestination plays as much havoc with human freedom as strict causal determinism does over on the behaviorists’ side.

Learn more about justifying evil

On the other hand, if you do think that people are autonomous and, at least on occasion, make free choices, then this is a line of defense that is a possible and useful one.

Open Questions

The free will theodicy does, however, leave several questions still open, troublesome, and problematic. One might ask, for example, why exactly does freedom require the possibility of evil and the possibility of evil require the actuality of evil from time to time? Why couldn’t, as medieval theologians argued, God have created an order of beings, people who were free but who always, exclusively and freely, make good choices?

Why exactly does freedom require the possibility of evil and the possibility of evil require the actuality of evil from time to time?

Is there something logically incoherent in the notion of someone made in such a way that they always only freely choose the good? Unless there is something screwy about always, only, freely choosing the good, then the claim that for it to be the best of all possible worlds we have to be free—in order to be free, we have to be able to make bad choices; in order to be able to make bad choices, we have to actually make one from time to time—is not going to be quite so convincing, quite so plausible as it might otherwise be. That really needs to be worked out in fine detail to show just exactly how it is that freedom has these entailments, exactly how it is that human evils and their consequences are practical necessities as means to greater goods.

Man marionette on ropes controlled by puppeteer
The concept of free-will is crucial in understanding theological arguments for the necessity of evil in this world (Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

Furthermore, even if you’re convinced that the notion of always freely choosing the good is logically incoherent, that really you have the option of choosing the other, even if you’re convinced of that, you are still in a position of needing to ask, “Is it absolutely essential in order for a free will theodicy to work?  Is it absolutely essential, in order for people to be free, for there to be this much evil in the world?” We are just awash in the consequences of people’s acts. Couldn’t an all-mighty, all-wise, all-loving God restrain people a little bit without denying their freedom altogether but nevertheless checking, to a certain extent, the horrific consequences of their bad choices when they make them?

Learn more about Justifying natural evil

How Much Freedom Should You Give a Child?

Baby sitting near the stair gate
The free-agency of children must be limited when they are young to protect them from dangers that they are not yet capable of avoiding. (Image: Daria Chichkareva/Shutterstock)

Let’s go to a very practical situation, where a family is trying to raise a child. You want that child to grow up to be an independent, autonomous individual. A reasonably intelligent person in the parenting role approaches that gradually. You want the child to grow to a state of freedom and autonomy. That doesn’t mean that you give them carte blanche when they’re three. A three-year-old who has not yet developed judgment in any kind of reasonable world is going to be kept under fairly strict restraint. You don’t let them play on the freeway. You may even have a fence around your yard with a latch on the gate. Yes, their freedom is being restricted, but, specifically, it’s being restricted while they have time to internalize the judgment, the reasonableness, the wisdom that they need in order to cope with the world as a free agent when the time comes.

Granted, it is a very difficult process of judgment on the parents’ part to know how much freedom to give them, how soon. But there comes a point, somewhere when they’re in their teens probably, when you hope they’ve internalized enough of those values that they are beginning to see the world in a reasonable kind of way, and so you loosen the restraints and you loosen them a little more, and then they get their driver’s license. Your 17-year-old says, “Dad, can I have the car keys?” You grit your teeth, hand him the car keys, and you hope by then he’s got some judgment.

Freedom can be bestowed in an incremental way so that, along with the freedom, one acquires the ability to deal with it responsibly and live a responsible life.

The point of this excursion is that freedom can be bestowed in an incremental way so that, along with the freedom, one acquires the ability to deal with it responsibly and live a responsible life. One would expect an all-wise, all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God to understand that at least as well as we do and a whole lot better. Even if the free will theodicy does get the theists off the hook from the atheist’s argument on human evils, it still leaves a very big question about the extent of human freedom, the license with which we seem to be operating in this view of the world without restraint, the catastrophic overblown consequences of even minor infractions, and then, of course, still the problem of those evils in the world that are not reasonably the results or the product of anything that we or any other human did anyway.

On that last count, something more is still needed. There are hard questions to puzzle through, hard thinking to be done to flesh out the free will theodicy for human evils. But even if we had done that, and even at the point at which you have done that and have come to a satisfactory conclusion in your own thinking on how to deal with that, then there are still those nonhuman evils. There is still some kind of move that needs to be made there.

Learn more about taking evil seriously

Common Questions About the Purpose of Evil

Q: What does it mean to be evil?

What it means to be evil is somewhat subjective. But there are some universal beliefs among most that evil is the opposite of good, and in most cultures some form of the Ten Commandments provides a description of evil that includes acts such as murder, adultery, and theft.

Q: Are there different types of evil?

According to the philosophy of religion, there are at least two types of evil: Natural Evil (floods, hurricanes, or other natural catastrophes) and Human or Moral Evil (murder, rape, theft, etc.).

Q: What is the evil eye?

The evil eye is an old legend that claims someone can cause you harm or misery by an evil glance that bestows a curse. This has led to high sales of charms and amulets to protect against this problem, and they are also referred to as evil eyes.

Q: What does it mean to be good?

Good refers to what one would choose as favorable in a situation where there were two choices and is also the opposite of evil. This can lead to very complex decisions when faced with complex questions that pertain to multitudes of other people as well. Even when a person believes that he is doing the right thing and acting altruistically, others may deem his action as bad.

This article was updated on 7/20/2019

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