The problem of evil

Why does God allow evil to happen? Where is God during injustice, war and famine? Where is God during your personal crisis?
Not understanding the "problem of evil" in philosophy leaves many people fundamentally hurt, and even existentially traumatized; such hurt often causes people to disbelieve and hate God.
In this article, I will examine the problem of evil. The answers might be provoking to some, comforting to others, helpful for some, disappointing and surprising for others.

"Only great pain is the ultimate liberator of the spirit. I doubt that such pain makes us better; but I know that it makes us more profound." -Nietzsche

Urfan Ul Hassan
October 2023


  • J. L. Mackie: the atheistic critique of theistic arguments
  • Gottfried Leibniz: God and the principle of perfection

  • Story of prophet Job: The Biblical view
  • The Qur'anic view: Joseph and root-word analysis

  • Final reflections & Conclusion

John L. Mackie

1917 - 1981

The problem of evil and human suffering

Before Mackie, the ancient philosopher Epicurus argued against God being all-good and all-powerful, precisely because God allowed evil to happen, and was not willing to do anything about it. So it seemed to Epicurus. What Epicurus failed to demonstrate was the logical impossibility of an all-powerful God existing at the same time as human suffering. There is no logical contradiction between these two existing at the same time. However, there exists an emotional problem in this equation. Appealing to emotion is not a good argument, especially in philosophy and logic. However, in my opinion, everything that occurs in the world is important, such that the emotional problem also needs an emotionally satisfactory explanation. The only way to solve this problem is through reason and philosophy.

J. L. Mackie
Mackie was an atheist philosopher who argued that morals do not exist, but that they had to be invented. Few modern atheists are this brave and sophisticated to make such an admission. What Mackie is really saying here, is that evil (and good) does not exist at all; everything is a flux of atoms arranging and rearranging as we fly through the darkness of space. 
"If God is dead, then everything is permitted." -Dostoevsky

Mackie pointed out the typical fallacious solutions often given by religious people to the problem of evil. Mackie argued that these arguments are false if God is all-powerful and all-good. Let us look at Mackie's criticism of these arguments:

1: "Goodness cannot exist without evil."

Mackie argued that such statements set boundaries and limits to God, thus going against the view that God is all-powerful. This is because the proposition states that God is not able to create only goodness. However, it could be argued that such limitations are presupposed in the term all-powerful, such that logical impossibilities cannot occur; evil must exist if good exists. Some would argue that God can do impossible things as well. Finally, Mackie argued that God is understood as absolutely good and not relatively good, such that Mackie thinks evil is not required for goodness to exist.

2: "Evil is necessary as a means to do good."

This principle would also violate with the principle of God being all-powerful, as God would be bound by causal laws, He himself made. Mackie argued that solution to this is the view that God has the ability to bind himself to causal laws. The question becomes whether this is logically possible.

3. "The universe is better with some evil than without it."

For argument's sake, Mackie assumes that there are degrees of goodness and evil. Good results justify any given evil, for example the existence of diseases can lead to medical inventions. Mackie argued that if this assumption is true it will lead to an infinite regress of goodness and evil ever increasing to justify their existence.

4. "Evil is due to human free will."

God is not responsible for any evil, but humans are; we have the freedom to choose between good and bad actions. However, did God not create human beings with the potential to do evil? Mackie argued that God could have programmed humans such that they freely chose to do good. The choices humans make is also based upon their character (the choices are not random), such that God, as the creator of characters, is responsible for all the choices humans make. Mackie thought that this was evidence for God not being all-powerful and all-good.

Let us now turn to Gottfried Leibniz's answer to the problem of evil, which according to Mackie himself is an adequate solution.


1646 - 1716

The principle of perfection

Gottfried Leibniz - "The Last Universal Genius", was a polymath, meaning he had knowledge across a number of subjects, such as mathematics, philosophy and science. Leibniz invented calculus before Newton; an incredible achievement that Leibniz does not get enough recognition for. Nevertheless, Leibniz was a powerhouse of a thinker. Leibniz had some of the most profound and mind-bending statements ever in philosophy; Leibniz held the view, as opposed to Newton, that absolute time, space and matter did not exist (see theory on monads).
The works of Leibniz are extensive; I have here tried to summarize the main points on evil.

Leibniz's view on evil

Leibniz used the principle of sufficient reason to establish the existence of God. In short, the principle of sufficient reason states that everything must have a reason or cause. If this world was created, there must be sufficient reason or explanation for why exactly this world was created and not any other world.
Leibniz argued that this world is the best of all possible worlds (principle of perfection) following the principle of sufficient reason; God have created the world in such a way that maximum perfection is possible; the order of the universe is such that it is governed by simple laws that  allows for the greatest varieties, possibilities and richness in the world, without them contradicting each other. God must do everything for the best since he is all-powerful and all-good. Leibniz argued that evil does not exist at all, but it seems so for humans; would not the world be a better world if no wars were ever fought?
On first thought, it seems like the world would indeed be better without any war or disease, especially if we could remove specific negative events, and everything else stayed the same. The problem with this line of thought is that it assumes humans are good judges of what is better or worse, and that the standard for the world being better is based upon immediate human happiness. It is possible that if certain negative events did not happen, the world would be in a worse state. Leibniz argued that human happiness is not a reasonable standard to use; if one is to use anything related to happiness or flourishing, it should rather be based upon the happiness/flourishing of all the creatures in the universe, including aliens if they exist; then, given the size of the universe, the suffering on the whole becomes minute.
Nevertheless, terms like "happiness" are misleading and clouds the mind; rather, consider Aristotle's definition of flourishing, or "happiness" in light of virtue ethics. Using Aristotle's definition, or virtue ethics in general, Leibniz's argument becomes more convincing.
Leibniz further argued that what seems to be evil is the result of human beings' free will; in a best possible world, free will exists in the form it has taken; you are truly free to choose. Sometimes a choice will lead to suffering, but in the mind of the one choosing it was thought to lead to some good. Thus, they were unable to see what was truly good at a certain moment. Mackie suggested that free will with a program to always choose the good would be better, but this is clearly false as this would not maximize perfection; as the philosopher Plantinga points out, the "freedom" Mackie called for would not be genuine or real freedom. Finally, no human is able to judge what could be better than what already is.
The Stoics met all misfortune with virtue, reason and self-control. While the Stoics were tough, Nietzsche had an even tougher (some would say stranger) philosophy; Nietzsche concluded that one should love fate - that is, not only accept good and bad events, but love them. See the story of Conan the Barbarian.
It is important to understand that individual painful events are not possible for humans to explain as the best option possible at the time of the event occurring. No human can ever demonstrate this on the individual level as our minds are limited. However, humans are able to control their actions and reactions, such that if God exists and Leibniz's principle of perfection is true, then humans can assuredly assume that any event, positive or negative, is part of a Divine Plan; the plan might not be comprehensible, but it is guiding the universe somewhere.

"My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati (love of fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity..." -Nietzsche

The story of Prophet job

The story of Job in the Bible is told at length, while the lesson of the story is briefly summarized in the Qur'an. In my opinion, the metaphors in the story of Job are not truly appreciated and too often taken literally. The Biblical story tells us about how prophet Job suffered immense misfortune and pain, and how the prophet responded to the disasters he found himself in.

Book of Job

Job had a big family and plenty of material wealth. Job was virtuous and consistent in doing good. For this, God was proud of His prophet. However, Satan accused God for ignorantly giving Job credit for his goodness. Satan argued that Job was being good only because God had given him wealth and comfort. What would happen if God took this away from him? Satan concluded that if those things were taken away, Job would surely curse God. Satan argued that Job's piety and true personality would reveal itself to be weak if God took away all that was given to him. God accepted Satan's challenge.

Thus, Satan was permitted to take everything from Job. Satan killed his children, destroyed his home, and took away all of his material wealth. After that, Job was stricken with a disease that covered his entire body with wounds. Job was left in ashes. His wife, tired of him and God, said "curse God, and die". Job refused to curse God. However, he was in such severe pain that he started to wish that he had never been born. Job's friends told him that God was punishing him for hidden evil within him. Ultimately Job complained to God that he was not deserving of such punishment, and that God seemed to be excessively angry and hostile toward human beings. There was no wisdom to be found in his pain. It was strange that the closest individual to God also received the most difficult challenges.

Finally, God spoke to Job. God asked Job if he was able to understand how the universe was made. 

In God's questioning, Job gained the answer to the problem of evil; as a human, he was in no position to make any moral judgements about God's decisions. The creator of everything can see what humans are not capable of seeing. Job learned that the appropriate response was to align himself completely with God, and to accept the unfolding of events, even if they were not comprehensible at the time. Humans ought to be steadfast and virtuous during times of despair. In the end, because of his continued piety and virtue, Job gained back his health and doubled his strength and knowledge.

The quranic perspective

The Qur'an (and the Bible) tells the inspiring story of prophet Joseph in chapter 12. Joseph experienced extremely difficult situations from childhood to adulthood. His consistent response to all the challenges was virtue, and a strong trust in God. In the final act of the story, Joseph finds himself in a position of absolute power. The final act demonstrates the true character of Joseph as he chooses forgiveness over vengeance for those that were truly unjust toward him.

To every circumstance, Joseph chooses to trust God. To trust God does not mean to only wait for God (although I believe this is a part of it); it means to never lose heart, and to continue to work hard, to be hopeful, steadfast and brave. This is what leads Joseph to ultimate success in life. In my opinion, the biggest achievement of Joseph is the development of his personality.

Interestingly, in the concluding verses of chapter of Joseph, God is described as "Lateef", the root-word meaning subtle, imperceptible, very clear. This means that God operates in a way that is not immediately perceptible to humans. Think about the gradual growth of a plant; it is imperceptible to humans, but the effects are very clear. The same is true for good and bad deeds; the consequence of good or "evil" actions manifest in the human personality over time.

(I find chapter Joseph to be extremely rich, and it deserves a full analysis at a later time.)

Analyzing root-words

Let us look at some root-words used by the Qur'an about hardship and difficulties in life. One of the words used in the Qur'an about disaster is the word "museebat". Those that speak Arabic and Urdu understand this word to only mean "disaster", however this is not the entire meaning of the word. The word stems from the Arabic root word S-W-B, meaning: Something to come down and reach its destination; a thing which reaches its right place. This meaning has profoundly different philosophical consequences than "disaster". 

Next, consider the verse 21:35 in the Qur'an. I have examined every root word used in this verse and have come to a very different understanding than the traditional translation/understanding. Pay close attention to the real meaning of the words "good", "evil", "test" and "trial" as listed below.


Traditional translation: "Every soul will taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as trial; and to Us you will be returned."

My translation: Every soul will experience death. (During this life,) Your real personality shows up when you are facing both easy and difficult times; We will provide you with opportunities to grow and refine your personality; you have to freely choose between that which leads to the stagnation of your personality, or that which leads to the evolution of your personality. Then (after that), it is to Us you will return.

Root for "test" = BLW: The real condition of something to appear, good or bad.

Root for "trial" = FTN: To melt gold to remove impurity, a forged coin, something that appears in reality.

Root for "evil" = SH-R-R: to scatter, disperse, human strength to be spent/wasted.

Root for "good" = KYR: beauty, anything favoured, useful, all types of good.


Ultimately, I agree with Leibniz in that evil does not truly exist. Notice that this statement is true independent of God's existence. If God does not exist, then there is no meaning in the universe and all morals become subjective opinions, or more precisely a study of anthropology. Consider the absurdity of a universe without God. If God does exist, morals are objective and to be found in the fabric of nature itself, as described by virtue ethics.
Final reflections
All human beings are born in circumstances they themselves did not choose. It is interesting that people, especially in the West, when observing the challenges in other countries or in others' lives, might feel shameful or undeserving of what they have. It is positive that people become more thankful by observing the harsh circumstances in many parts of the world. It is also positive that they volunteer and give away what they can of their time and resources to others. These behaviors are all virtuous and lead to the development of human personality and character. However, what many people do not realize is that they themselves do not have it that easy; they underestimate their own challenges. They have been given a different kind of challenge, namely a psychological one. These challenges are not to be underestimated. Life in developed countries might be more comfortable, but this does not make life any richer or more meaningful. Comfort and technology are causing serious psychological challenges in the West.
Given the profound insight of Aristotle on what it means to flourish as a human being, and if virtue ethics are true, what ultimately matters in life is the level of development of one's personality, character and soul. This can only be achieved through mastering challenges in life, whether it be physical, psychological, or spiritual. Consider Alexander the Great dying at the age of 32; did Alexander not truly live longer than the individual who lived an unexamined and unvirtuous life until their death at 90?
To conclude, it is wiser to view negative events as opportunities to grow one's soul. Situations that end tragically are not always easily explainable by any human; as we saw with Leibniz, the human mind is limited and cannot see the whole puzzle, only scattered parts. Therefore, humans should withhold judgement; it is better to interpret events in light of Leibniz's principle of perfection, and to align oneself completely with God. There is much to learn by observing the unfolding of events. It could be argued that the people who experience the biggest tragedies might also be the ones closest to God, and/or in the position to learn the most; consider Socrates, who demonstrated the truth and wisdom of virtue ethics, and for that sentenced to death by the most ignorant. However, Socrates never viewed his death as a tragedy, but as educational for mankind. Socrates felt sorry for those who killed him as they misunderstood life, and they would therefore never flourish as human beings; that is the ultimate tragedy.